It’s a good year for boxing movies.
Though many had problems with Southpaw, I still maintain that it is a worthy entry into the ever-growing subgenre of boxing films. Moving on to Creed, many were skeptical as to how a spinoff of a beloved (and admittedly uneven) franchise would fare, especially one which moves its iconic character into a supporting role. However, Rocky fans have nothing to fear; Creed is an incredible boxing drama, one which reinvigorates familiar territory by focusing on a new generation of characters while still maintaining the series’ mainstay values of perseverance and mindfulness.
As the title suggests, the film focuses on a Creed, namely Adonis, the son of one of the legendary Apollo Creed’s mistresses. Adonis never met Apollo and was taken from his mother at a young age due to safety issues; he bounced around the foster care system until he was tracked down by Apollo’s wife, Mary Anne Creed (played by an excellent Phylicia Rashad). Growing up surrounded by the affluence bought by the father who died before he was born, Adonis struggles to buy into a normal, white-collar life, instead finding happiness in the one thing his mother abhors: boxing.
After an embarrassing defeat at the gym made famous by his father, Adonis travels from LA to Philadelphia (abandoning the trappings of wealth and the security of a steady job) to track down the only man who can make him the fighter he wants and needs to be: Rocky Balboa. To Adonis, Rocky represents not only the best possible coach he could have, but also a link to the father denied to him. When they first meet, Adonis, though skilled, is hot-headed and impatient. The aging Rocky, who has given up boxing to run his deceased wife’s restaurant, declines to train him. He has become a lonely, old man without any sense of real purpose left in his life. Adonis, though initially discouraged by Rocky’s dismissal, doesn’t take no for an answer. When Rocky does relent and agrees to train Adonis, a relationship of mutual support begins; Rocky provides the necessary guidance and support Adonis craves while Adonis shows Rocky that his life is not yet over, that old age and even illness are just another form of fighting and that the only way to definitely lose a fight is to not show up. When an unprecedented string of events give him a shot at the title, Adonis must fight to show both himself and the world that he is worthy of the name, Creed.
Creed is an enthralling drama, one which uses nostalgia not as a crutch, but as a formula for something that obviously worked before, something that satisfies on a primal level: the underdog story. Though it mirrors the original Rocky in many ways, writer and director Ryan Coogler (who also directed the excellent Fruitvale Station which also starred Michael B. Jordan) and his writing partner Aaron Covington navigate these tropes in a way that never feels superficial. References aren’t crowbarred in; rather prior events are mentioned casually as they would in a world where they had happened. Adonis is not merely a stand-in for Rocky; he is his own character with his own troubles, his own dreams. He doesn’t start with rags, but with riches. It’s his conscious denial of these riches which makes him compelling; he wants to earn his own way in the world and be a fully realized person who exists as his own entity, not as the shadow of his tragically slain father. Initially he’s afraid to don the name of Creed because he doesn’t feel like he is worthy, but as with all of the Rocky films, that is the reason he must; being afraid and doubting yourself is part of the process of perseverance. Stepping into the ring and confronting one’s demons (both inner and outer) are what separate the brave from the weak. Despite his misgivings, Adonis is his father’s son and stands for the name that he hopes he is worthy of, and in doing so, gives the audience a character worthy of admiration and support.
Adonis is brought to life by the incredibly talented Michael B. Jordan, who completely inhabits the role. In every scene, he burns with potential energy, giving an understated, yet never lazy performance. Adonis’ arc throughout the film is clear and it is thanks to Jordan’s skills as an actor that Adonis’ frustrations and short temper never come off as childish, but as the realistic emotions of a person struggling to find a sense of self, impatient to be the person to whom they aspire. His scenes with Sylvester Stallone are electric, with both men leaving it all on the screen.
Stallone, reprising the iconic character of Rocky, embraces his age, showing a man with history, whose learned lessons and has many regrets. Adonis’ journey for self-discovery is mirrored by Rocky’s own quest to rediscover a reason to live; he finds that reason in Adonis and Adonis’ girlfriend, Bianca. Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson (who killed it earlier this year in Dear White People), is a musician suffering from gradual hearing loss. Her experience with this setback is what makes her the voice of reason in Adonis’ world; she knows that she needs to make the most of the time she has and struggles to engender this same mindset within Adonis, who in turn must give it to Rocky. Thompson’s Bianca is both loving and realistic; her vulnerability and her acceptance of what is happening to her are what give her strength and she provides a fitting counterpoint for Adonis, with a performance to match.
As director, Ryan Coogler astounds with imaginative camera work and wondrously choreographed fight scenes. Aided by cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler, Freeheld), Coogler captures every moment of Adonis’ journey, from the intimate to the violent, in a manner that is both stylistically pleasing and innovative. A single shot, two-round fight scene in the middle of the film is as breathless and harrowing as you would imagine, with the camera circling the two fighters as they trade blows and even going so far as to retreat with Adonis to his corner between rounds. It’s enthralling in the way cinema should be; telling a story that inspires with its classic values and true sense of heart. The visuals are aided by composer Ludwig Göransson’s score, which deftly melds new age, hip-hop themes with snippets of the original Rocky score.
Overall, Creed is the standard to which spinoffs and reboots should aspire. It works as a film beyond any reference to the original Rocky. It has a story with fully fleshed-out characters who have meaningful arcs that don’t merely mimic the structure of the original, but harken back to that story in ways that are thematically pleasing and most importantly, logical. The performances are superb (I wouldn’t be surprised if Stallone is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), the direction impeccable, and the writing moving. In the end, Creed is not just a good boxing movie, it is an excellent film in general and an experience which I am excited to have again.