Before journeying to the City of Brotherly Love to attempt to convince Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him, Adonis “Donny” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) projects a recording of his father’s famous bout with the Italian Stallion onto the wall. Standing in front of the projection, Donny is shadowboxing, mimicking the punches, dodges, and weaves on the wall behind him. As the recording changes, he’s sparring alongside the father he never knew one moment, and against him the next. It’s cinematography soaked in symbolism, the kind that could be trite and obvious in lesser-hands, but beautiful and striking as directed by Ryan Coogler. The same, happily, can be said of Creed as a whole.
The plot: Donny Creed never knew his father, deceased heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). An illegitimate child, Donny is adopted out of a juvenile correction center by Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Now grown up, Donny leaves the comforts of his finance job to become a professional boxer. Unable to find a trainer in Los Angeles, Donny heads to Philadelphia to enlist the help of his father greatest rival and best friend, Rocky Balboa. Forming a makeshift family with Rocky and Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and aspiring singer, Donny strives to step out of the shadow of his father’s legacy in a bout with the Liverpudlian boxing champ ‘Pretty’ Rocky Conlan (Tony Bellew)
The brass tacks of Creed‘s plot is familiar to anyone who’s watched a Rocky movie before: a boxer is given a miracle shot to prove his worth against an established champ and has to train to defy the odds to prove his worth to the world and to himself. But what Coogler understands that most Rocky sequels understood less to diminishing returns (and which Southpaw just straight-up whiffed), is that these are movies first and foremost about the characters and the world they inhabit. While not quite the proto-mumblecore of Stallone’s 1976 original, Creed takes a wider look at the lives of its characters in ways many of the sequels haven’t. The focus is on Donny and his journey, but it’s very much Rocky and Bianca’s story as well. There’s an equally fascinating movie as seen from their perspectives that bodes well for future installments in the Creed/ Rocky series.
Perhaps it’s something in the water in LA, but long-delay sequels with echoes and inverses of their 70s original seemed to be the trend in 2015*. While The Force Awakens took a similar arc and differed in how its characters reacted, Creed places Donny on the opposite side of the spectrum from Rocky, and follows him as he comes to a similar place. Donny lives with a legacy his trainer and surrogate father could never imagine, and bears a weight of expectation the Italian Stallion didn’t. Michael B. Jordan’s Donny is driven and nurses an anger that Balboa never did, and Jordan delivers the performance with conviction and grace; the kind that’s a shoo-in during awards seasons. Oh, wait.
Stallone truly is doing his best acting in years in Creed. While nominating the same actor for the same role 40 years apart makes for a sexy story, it’s a nomination well-earned. Stallone saw his character become a caricature in the 80s and brings him back down to earth in heart-breaking fashion. Stallone understands what this character means to people, and his performance, if at time too far in the spotlight, explores those traits to great affect.
snubbed regrettably absent from the awards season is Tessa Thompson’s Bianca. Exercising a degree of agency to which Talia Shire’s Adrian had to work towards, she breaks some of the stereotypes of the “fighter’s girlfriend” the latter performance inadvertently created in its wake. Ambitious and unwilling to shelve her dreams of being a singer for Donny’s dreams of being a fighter. The relationship they build is much more of a partnership than anything the franchise has shown before, and Thompson’s performance makes an already unique character shine.
Ryan Coogler’s writing and direction elevates the film as well. A one-take boxing match instantly sets Creed apart from the rest of the series in terms of pure cinematic style. It’s a sleeker film than the original ever was, but in ways that fit the character and the context. The aesthetic fits Creed’s personality as well as the long-shots and littered streets suited Balboa in ’76.
Reports have it that Coogler wrote the film with his father in mind, and that certainly comes across in Creed‘s focus on father-son relationships. There’s a good-deal of what my friend and frequent movie-viewing partner Michaela would handily label “Man Angst”, occasionally to its detriment. Mary Anne Creed is more or less sidelined aside from looking concerned in a few scenes, and for as defensive of his deceased mother as Donny is, actually naming her in the film at least once would have improved things a bit.
On a more personal note, it’s satisfying to know that after all these years, this franchise still understands Philadelphia. To scenes shot in locales like Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s, dirt bikes rolling the center of narrow streets, and discussions of Philly’s favorite catch-all noun “jawn”, it’s a movie that authentically captures the Philadelphia of 2015.
Creed finds a way to carry a forty year old franchise into the future. Rather than resting on it laurels and living past glories over, Creed is the rare sequel that honors what came before and truly embraces the new in equal measure. If 2015 was any indication, the next few years will see a deluge of long-delayed sequels, and if any of them work nearly as well as Creed, maybe that will be okay.
*How the stars of these movies react to and against the icons of 70s/ 80s masculinity in each could fill another article.
**This is neither here note there, but Creed opened for wide release 40 years to the day from the opening scene in Rocky. That’s pretty cool, guys.