Among underdog stories in film, few are recalled as fondly as that of Rocky, the big break that made Sylvester Stallone a superstar back in the 70’s, and went on to span a staggering five sequels over the decades that followed. After 2006’s Rocky Balboa however, Sylvester Stallone announced that he was retiring the character, and wanted the franchise to go out on a better note than the rather dismal Rocky V from 1990. Up until now, it seemed to be the end for the Italian Stallion.
As you can imagine then, it would take quite a bit of persuading, and a damn fine vision behind a new project, to convince Stallone to reverse his stance, and bring Rocky Balboa back to the big screen. Young, up-and-coming director, Ryan Coogler happened to have such a vision, and it was a vision so promising, that even Stallone couldn’t say no to it. Here’s the rub though; As the title suggests, Creed is not Rocky’s movie.
Instead, Creed functions as both a spin-off, and a passing of the torch to the boxing drama franchise that Stallone headlined over so many years, to rising star performer, Michael B. Jordan. Jordan’s character, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson-Creed, happens to be the estranged and illicit son of Rocky’s rival-turned-friend, Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring during the events of Rocky IV. Like his father, Donnie has fight in him, and is irrevocably attracted to the boxing ring, but he’ll need direction and a guiding hand to achieve his true potential, and live up to his father’s incredible legacy.
As you can see, there’s more than a few parallels to the original journey of Rocky’s character, but that’s kind of the idea behind Creed. It doesn’t reinvent the Rocky franchise. Instead, it wisely demonstrates why the movie doesn’t have to fix what isn’t broken. The simple foundation achieves spectacular highs, thanks to electrifying direction, an amazing lead performance by Michael B. Jordan, and intense, tightly choreographed boxing bouts that make sure Creed hits the senses as effectively as it touches the heart.
Most of Creed is another underdog tale, with Donnie being a rough, angry and unrefined fighter who has only recently learned that his birth father was Apollo Creed, the greatest boxer who ever lived. With newfound purpose, and a desire to prove that he can stand apart from his father’s shadow, Donnie moves to Philadelphia, and from there, his journey from thuggish bruiser to future champion is chronicled.
Despite having a short temper, and a youthful impetuousness, Jordan immediately makes Donnie a surprisingly grounded, charming presence. In a way, Donnie is kind of an accidental hero, a young man who must find greatness by learning to stand on his own, and be his own man. At heart, that is what Creed is about more than anything; A boy becoming a man, even without the aid of his larger-than-life father. The movie simply communicates this age-old story through the sport of boxing, and planted firmly in Rocky sensibilities, while still allowing Donnie’s character to stand firmly apart from Stallone’s former franchise lead, as his own distinct protagonist.
This time, Stallone’s Rocky more or less occupies the role of Mickey, the trainer, being the reluctant coach of Donnie, after enough arm-twisting. This feels appropriate, and especially fulfilling for longtime Rocky fans. After six movies, Rocky’s built quite the career, and if Stallone’s on-screen boxing career has reached the end of the line, why shouldn’t the mantle be passed, even within the narrative? Helping further is the fact that Rocky is tormented by loneliness, and his own lack of direction, now that his wife, Adrian and best friend, Paulie have passed away. This depression eventually leads into his own fight, one that nicely parallels the journey of Donnie, who pretty much sums up why this revision of the Rocky character is so effective, when Donnie finally takes charge at one point, and says to Rocky, “If I’m fighting, you’re fighting!” Rocky may be out of the ring, but his battles have not ended, and that’s displayed wonderfully in this movie!
Both physical and metaphorical fights are a big part of Creed, naturally, and as with the former Rocky movies, overcoming staggering odds is a major theme. This is especially illustrated in the movie’s expected climactic opponent, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, an undefeated light heavyweight world champion, who is about to head to a lengthy prison stint that will see his career ending, though wants to go out with one last big fight. He eventually gets wind of the up-and-coming son of Apollo Creed, and decides that there is no better boxer to take on. When Donnie agrees to the fight, he knows he’s taking on an opponent as fearsome and seemingly impossible as his own father, back when Rocky first faced him.
Rounding out the spaces of the old Rocky recipe is the love interest, in the form of an initially obnoxious neighbour of Donnie’s, a musical genius and singer-songwriter named Bianca, who has progressive deafness. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Bianca’s character, who will grow on the audience, and once again, has her own clever obstacles to overcome, further motivating Donnie to succeed. The only slight weak link with her character is the fact that the movie’s attempts at relationship drama aren’t as compelling as everything else. Maybe they’re just overshadowed, since the rest of the movie is so outstanding, but even so, it feels like the love story is simply there because Hollywood so often demands it, rather than truly functioning as a crucial piece of the story. Had Bianca just been a male friend, or even a platonic female friend, not much would have changed in the plot of Creed.
Still, Creed is stuffed with winning personality, and that’s especially true in the character writing and performances, which are pretty much sublime across the board. As much cinematic muscle as the movie packs though, its most endearing quality is its outstanding heart, a heart so similar and faithful to that of Rocky, but one that still beats with its own, equally appealing rhythm.
The story of Creed is well-developed and packed with an excellent cocktail of emotional highs and lows. The journey of Donnie to his rightful place in the boxing ring is one that is long, and very rarely straightforward. Nonetheless, every moment is one to be savoured, as Donnie quickly becomes a character as rich and compelling as Rocky ever was, while still not recycling the same steps of Rocky’s journey. The journey itself follows the same spirit, but Donnie’s journey will take him on a different path than Rocky, even if it’s within the same realm.
This makes Creed a fantastic example of how to effectively balance nostalgia with novelty. It knows what to keep familiar for Rocky fans to enjoy, as an unofficial ‘Rocky VII‘ of sorts, while also delighting and surprising audiences both new and old, regardless of whether they’ve seen any of the Rocky movies. Even if you haven’t seen a single one of the six Rocky offerings to come before, Creed is a very strong and incredibly written sports drama on its own merits.
In fact, newcomers will find Creed to be an ideal jumping-on point for the Rocky franchise, since it’s easily the best Rocky movie in many years, probably since the original, if not the best yet. That should also no doubt be great news for Rocky fans who embrace the idea of fresh blood to go with that familiar spirit, since, while the story now centers on a new character, the best elements of the franchise have been wonderfully implemented into a fresh, modern and infinitely appealing new plot!
Ryan Coogler first broke out into the directing scene in a big way in 2013, with the award-winning Fruitvale Station, another Michael B. Jordan collaboration. Once again, Coogler also proves that he’s one of Hollywood’s best young directors with Creed, and his established working chemistry with Jordan continues to pay off in spades, as he once again gets a positively riveting performance out of the actor, after already directing him so well in Fruitvale Station.
Of course, it’s not merely Jordan that benefits from Coogler’s extensive directing talent, particularly when Coogler is also given the chance to work from a script that he was a co-writer on, alongside Aaron Covington. All of the actors’ performances are outstanding, even Stallone, who you can tell believes in the vision behind the movie as much as Jordan and Coogler do, giving it his all, even almost ten years after the concluding chapter of Rocky Balboa.
The performances aren’t the only testament to Coogler’s directing talents either, as he also gives a dynamite, bone-crushing energy to the fights in Creed as well. All of the boxing matches in the movie are engrossing to watch, and are uniformly outstanding, with audiences effortlessly able to feel every mighty hit, particularly on the big screen. Like I said, Creed is a movie with heaps of both muscle and heart, and while the heart may be the best element of the piece, the muscle certainly won’t leave you wanting, should you be coming for that as well!
Creed, like its title character, is a movie that seems so humble and unassuming in the midst of massive Holiday blockbusters like Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it could very well be even better than those movies, even with their massive shadows. Creed proves in this case that less is more, being a movie that’s ultimately simple, perhaps even predictable in some respects, especially for Rocky fans, but it’s a movie that’s so finely-crafted, so sublimely-produced and so brilliantly brought to life by its actors and director, that you’ll find it to be a big screen champion for the Holiday season, and one that definitely shouldn’t be missed!
Rocky fans will probably be among those most attracted to Creed, but even moviegoers who barely know anything about the Italian Stallion, and haven’t seen any of his movies, should seek it out. Creed is the best Rocky movie in decades, even being a spin-off and successor tale, and if you have yet to experience these movies, Creed brings to the table everything that makes them so great (well, most of them), along with contributing a bunch of its own fresh inspiration, to make this aging franchise feel newer and more exciting than it’s been since the 70’s.
Much like the looming legacy of Apollo Creed, the legacy of Rocky is one that Creed must fight to break out of, but it’s a fight that Creed manages to win. It’s a bold new chapter for the Rocky franchise, and one that gives the impression that these movies couldn’t be in better hands. Fight on, Donnie! May your own story be as long-running and successful as Rocky’s before you. You deserve it!
- Jordan and Stallone leading lots of superb performances
- Emotionally-charged, highly satisfying story
- Exciting, well-choreographed boxing bouts
- Romantic arc is overshadowed by the rest