One of the most enduring movie legacies is the ROCKY series. It almost seems insulting to call it a “franchise.” The Marvel movies are franchise. The FAST & FURIOUS movies are franchise. But the ROCKY movies, despite a couple of them not being very good, deserve a little bit more than that. They are the foundation of the underdog sports movie and an inspiration to many. The story of how Sylvester Stallone got the movie made is just as remarkable as the movie itself. It’s a pivotal moment in film history where it was proved that, truly, anything is possible. Being cinematic royalty, it was unlikely that the series would stay dormant for very long. A new sequel, a reboot, or a spin-off was inevitable. What no one could have guessed is that a great, young filmmaker would go the distance and bring the series back to its roots by focusing on a younger fighter with unexpected ties to the original movies.
CREED is about the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed named Adonis Johnson, who turns his back on a life of privilege in the corporate sector when the siren song of following in his late father’s footsteps beckons. He leaves his life in LA behind and travels to Philadelphia to train with his father’s former rival and best friend, Rocky Balboa. Once in Philadelphia, Adonis falls for a young musician named Bianca and begins to train with Rocky while coming to terms with his lineage. Through extenuating circumstances, he gets a shot at the title fight and must prove, once and for all, that is a true Creed.
The movie is absolutely remarkable and it’s exciting to watch a writer/director make all the right choices on a movie where wrong, or even just disingenuous, ones could have been made so easily. Every shot, each line of dialogue, and every musical sting feels lovingly homegrown from whatever genius the first ROCKY was created. It is a movie made by a team who clearly love the ROCKY movies and want to do right by them. Sometimes that means paying homage to those movies, but mostly it means crafting a story that doesn’t just copy the same steps over and over, but one that is evocative of the titular boxer’s journey. Adonis Creed’s rise to glory isn’t the same rags-to-riches tale that ROCKY had. He comes from a rough childhood, but was rescued from that by his late father’s actual wife. He actually had a pretty good childhood after a certain point and the movie establishes that he has a keen intelligence and could easily thrive in the corporate environment, but that isn’t what he wants. He wants to fight and, more importantly, fight to be the son of Apollo Creed.
Michael B. Jordan does wonderful, understated work as the titular Creed. He anchors the movie and gives it so much heart and drive. His character’s formation is a slow burn. Slowly, bit by bit, he starts to wake up in this movie as he trains with Rocky. He really sells that Adonis, called Donnie in the movie, is struggling to find his place in this world and needs to chase the thing that is going to give him that confirmation. That this is boxing and Jordan seems to be pretty adept at that too. But I would say that he is at his strongest when he is acting with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca. They have really great chemistry and every scene they are in, from their awkward and exciting first encounter to their moment on Rocky’s couch, pops.
Speaking of Thompson, she is a revelation in this movie. She creates a character that is strong, exciting, funny, flawed, and hurting. Bianca is a musician with a degenerative hearing condition that will one day leave her deaf. She plays this condition very subtly throughout the film and it never feels forced and always feels 100% authentic. She is a great character because she has her own hopes, dreams, and fears. She isn’t just waiting for Donnie to show up. She takes a liking to him because when he shows up, she feels like she has found someone who can stand toe-to-toe with her and not wilt. They do go through the standard “get together, break apart, and then get back together” arc, but it comes across as genuine because of what these characters are going through in the movie. You understand Bianca’s frustration, not with Donnie boxing, but with Donnie’s insecurities about who is his and what his place is. Also, this girl can really sing. It’s a great performance that promises that we will see and hear much more from Tessa Thompson in the future.
My favorite aspect of the movie, however, is Sylvester Stallone’s lonely, wounded performance as Rocky Balboa. I’ve been a fan of the original ROCKY for a while and saw the most recent sequel, ROCKY BALBOA, when it came out in theaters. Recently, knowing that CREED was coming out, I went back and watched the whole series through from the start. While ROCKY is probably the superior movie in the series, it is his role in CREED that showcases Stallone at his best. He is the he heart and soul of this movie and absolutely every time he speaks it’s heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. Rocky goes through a health struggle in the movie and has a speech around the midway point about feeling like maybe it’s time to join the people he loves so dearly and I couldn’t hold back my tears. It’s a stirring performance and one that is sure to be recognized in the upcoming awards season.
The true star of this movie is writer/director Ryan Coogler. After captivating audiences with FRUITVALE STATION (which I will correct having not seen immediately), he has jumped into the established world of ROCKY and returned it to its former greatness. It is the most competent, emotional, thrilling and inspiring movie in the series since its arguably perfect original. His script is whip smart, lovingly playful, and brutally emotional. The camera work done on the film is ambitious without being showy or pretentious. Coogler is still very young for a filmmaker, but this film has solidified him as someone you should be watching very closely. By bringing a new fighter to Philly and making him Apollo Creed’s blood, Coogler has revamped the Rocky saga and proven that he is the absolute perfect person to take the reins of this series from Stallone.
There is a line in the midst of the final fight in the movie that I won’t ruin by quoting here, but it’s the perfect distillation of Donnie’s feelings towards himself, his family, boxing, and life. Those same words are the perfect distillation of what this movie is trying to accomplish. I will say that it pulled it off with grand aplomb and my cheeks were damp with tears of sadness and joy the entire time.
Now go find out what that line is and watch the movie.
MITCH’S ANGLE: CREED is a movie that did everything right. From the casting, to the writing, to the acting, to the direction. Each scene is better than the one before. Go see CREED. Now. Why are you still reading this? Stop and go see CREED!