Creed is a rare kind of franchise film. It pays homage to the first movie in the series but ultimately manages to step out of its shadow and stand on its own. Like Rocky, this film is a wholesome drama about people with good hearts fighting for all the right reasons. You may roll your eyes, but you’ll probably rub some “dust” from them, too.
Michael B. Jordan stars as the son of Apollo Creed — Rocky’s toughest opponent in the boxing ring throughout the series. Adonis “Donny” Creed sculpts himself into a spitting image of his father, but he aims to build his own legacy in the boxing world.
Donny finds Rocky in a cold corner of Philadelphia, running a little mom-and-pop Italian place named “Adrian’s,” after his late wife. The walls are lined with pictures of his famous fights, and Rocky is running off the fumes of his glory days. But he’s not ready to get back in the ring.
After much stubborn prodding, Donny eventually convinces Rocky to train him. And from there, Creed transports viewers back to 1976 with the kind of rousing montages that define the first film in the franchise. As Donny pounds speed bags and sprints through the streets of Philadelphia, you’ll shiver with excitement just like most moviegoers did when they first saw Rocky.
Fortunately, the film is more than a mere jog down memory lane. Jordan and co-writer/director Ryan Coogler make Donny a complex, conflicted character — a man trying to step out of his father’s shadow without leaving the world in which he was a legend. His inner turmoil is interesting even outside of its place in the Rocky mythos. Jordan makes you feel the emotional heft of Donny’s determination to find his place in the world — a theme that’s hardly exclusive to the Rocky franchise.
Much of the film is formulaic and predictable, as most sports dramas tend to be. But part of the pleasure of these films lies in how they fulfill expectations. They scratch our itch to see nice guys finish first.
Creed defies expectations with Donny’s love interest though. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) transcends the typical worried girlfriend role we see often in this kind of film. Despite her progressive hearing loss, she continues her singing career — just like Donny keeps fighting with the odds stacked against him. Even as she grows concerned about him, you can sense that Bianca sees herself in Donny and therefore can’t help but sympathize with his perseverance. It’s a subtle, engaging love story.
Coogler creates an equally evocative atmosphere. Like he did in his powerful directorial debut Fruitvale Station, he immerses you in the urban setting. You’ll practically feel the Philadelphia wind whipping against your face and the rust of the city scraping beneath your fingers. The film recalls the gritty look and mood that makes Rocky seem so raw and real.
Last but certainly not least, it’s an absolute joy to watch Sylvester Stallone slip back into the role of Rocky. He towers over the film like a gentle giant, delivering a tough yet tender performance. Few scenes this year are more moving than the moment in which Rocky limps up the stone steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, slowly but surely recreating the scene from the first film that turned Stallone into a star.
Creed may turn Coogler and Jordan into bigger stars as well. Like Rocky, this is hardly an edgy, earth-shattering film. But like every underdog story, its strength rests in its modesty. The biggest surprise of this sports story is how it manages to move you even when you know exactly how it will play out. Creed won’t have the same impact as Rocky, but therein lies its power — it makes its own magic.