When I was about six years old, I watched my very first boxing match with my dad. Naturally, there wasn’t a whole lot in common between us yet, but as I saw the re-run of whatever Muhammad Ali fight he was watching, that quick changed. Before I knew it, I was learning about the mythology of fighters like Ali, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. As my passion for movies developed, I was always drawn to films featuring fighters, When We Were Kings, Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter, and of course, Rocky evolving into my personal favorites. Many nights were spent with my father and I watching the ever-changing Rocky franchise develop, starting as gritty dramas and transforming into insane superhero films. Even so, writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone certainly did bring Rocky to a very fitting conclusion in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, which made it all the more surprising when the notion of Creed came along. Sure, Rocky stepping into the mentor role for a fresh lead seemed like a novel idea, but would this new character capture the same authentic magic that made Rocky such a sensation? Well, after picking up my jaw from off the theater floor, I have a very clear answer.
The film centers on Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the troubled illegitimate child of legendary fighter Apollo Creed. Struggling to find his place in the world and constantly finding himself in fights, Adonis decides that like his father, his destiny lies in the ring. Traveling to Philadelphia from Los Angeles, he seeks the training and guidance of a deeply retired Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Reluctant at first, Balboa decides to take the young man under his wing, and together they form a bond that allows them both to face their own individual demons. Meanwhile, Adonis finds himself smitten with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) a musician living in his apartment complex, who does even more to calm his fiery soul.
If Creed had a lead who in any way paled in comparison to Stallone, then the whole thing would have toppled over. Fortunately, Michael B. Jordan grapples onto the opportunity with everything he has, and does what might be the best work of his young career here. He gives Adonis, who could have very easily just been a simplistic fuming bore in other hands, incredible depth and passion. At heart, he’s a guy who feels as though he lives in the shadow of a man who didn’t even stick around long enough to love him, and that deeply rooted sadness seeps under every moment of arrogance, anger, and sweetness stems out from that. We never have any doubt that he’s a good person who just needs to apply himself, and watching himself do just that is a pleasure. Meanwhile, Stallone is just as good if not even better as the aging Balboa. After playing a character for the seventh time, it would have been easy for the iconic star to phone it in and just play the barking trainer. Instead, he shows us vulnerable layers that had been touched on in Rocky Balboa but really get exposed here through his relationship with Adonis. It’s a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and is the key piece in perhaps the most touching father/son dynamic that has graced the screen in quite some time, even if it isn’t biological. Thomson is also very impressive, Bianca being afflicted with hearing loss that gives her limits in pursuing what she loves. Even if she is by far the most under-written character in the film, she gets the job done in making sure that we care about her and Adonis’ relationship enough to not make it feel like filler.
Ryan Coogler (hot off of his spectacular debut, Fruitvale Station) grows and excels like crazy as both a director and screenwriter here. This was an absolutely perfect project for him to cut his teeth on as his stock in Hollywood grows. He creates an style in this film that is both intimate, and operatic in equal measure. All the character moments are given the space and air to breathe, with extended sequences of beautifully written and emotionally stirring dialogue. Then, when it’s time to evolve into a Rocky movie, Coogler crafts some of the most epic training and boxing sequences ever put on film. While the standout sequence is clearly a brilliantly choreographed second act bout captured all in one take, there’s a plethora of moments that come fairly close to matching it. With a beautiful, thundering score that invokes the original Rocky theme without copying it, Coogler makes us feel the snap of every single hit. If real life boxing was this thrilling to watch, it would be the most popular sport in the world.
The only major failing here is the film’s antagonist, Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). While Bellew is perfectly component in the role, he’s never really given a whole lot to do. He’s introduced in a fairly clumsy way at the beginning of the film, and then never really gets to develop the larger than life persona that many of the previous Rocky villains have. I’m not asking for Mr. T again, but it would just be nice to have somebody with a bit more charisma or personal connection to Adonis to drive the drama of the film that much further.
Creed is not only a respectfully and masterfully crafted reboot of the Rocky franchise for a new generation, but it’s a film that made me remember why I loved the boxing films of my young years so much. It’s emotionally resonant, inspiring, and just about as crowd pleasing as a movie gets. In 1977, the original Rocky went on to take Best Picture. I suspect that almost thirty years later, it just might be time a double K.O.