Just the other day, I asked someone if they’d seen Creed. Their response?
“Oh, yeah my girlfriend dragged me to one of their shows once. Don’t tell anybody, but they were actually alright. Isn’t that guy dead?”
It took me a minute to grasp what he was talking about. No, I said. Not the BAND Creed. The movie. Have you seen the movie Creed? No, they said, but it sounded familiar. Who was in that?
“Oh, Michael B. Jordan from Fantastic Four…”
Groan. Okay, my bad. He was also in Chronicle and Fruitvale Station. He’s a tremendous actor, actually. You see, Creed is a spinoff of the Rocky franchise…
Groan + eyeroll. Okay, again, my bad. Look. I know when you talk about the Rocky films, people chuckle a bit, because Rocky, like Rambo, like Sylvester Stallone himself, have all become something of a national punchline over the years. Isn’t that kind of the in-joke with The Expendables, Sly’s other movie franchise that apparently is never, ever going to stop? Ha-ha, look at those old farts, still trying to play action hero after all these years.
Don’t they know how stupid they look?
Well, Sylvester Stallone has been making movies since pretty regularly since 1970. Rocky, the film that made him a household name, happened early in his career. He wrote the script, starred in it, and then it won three Oscars, including Best Picture. I dare you to walk outside, wherever you are (except at sea, probably don’t do this), and find one person who hasn’t seen a single Rocky film.
Like him or not, if you add up all the films Stallone has been a significant part of, and you’ll count almost five billion dollars worth of box office.
Would you quit your job if you were that good? I’ve said this before, but now I’m finally going to say it on the Internet, so it can officially be true – not all the Rocky movies are good, but they’re all watchable.
For me, the best thing about the franchise as a whole has got to be Sly himself. Whatever you think of him as an actor, he inhabits the character of Rocky Balboa as no one else could. Here was a guy who made up for a lack of brains with a ton of heart, which of course the ladies can get behind. But he did it by beating the shit out of people, which makes him a hero to men. He also wears big red gloves and has the IQ of a steak sandwich, so bring the kids! Rocky is someone we all identify with!
My point is, whatever you think of him in other roles, it’s hard to deny that Stallone is simply brilliant when he’s playing this character. The final fight in Rocky IV was as simultaneously ridiculous and awesome as a chainsaw fight in an elevator. But if you can watch it without wanting to cheer at the end – if Rocky’s dopey speech afterward doesn’t give you a little lump in your throat despite yourself, then you – sir or ma’am – are with the terrorists.
So, when someone inexplicably decided it was time for a seventh film in the Rocky series, what would this mean? What would be necessary to make it work? Stallone would be pushing 70 at the time, so the obvious choice should be to take the franchise in a new direction, with a new star. Rocky Balboa would have to be a supporting character. That’s a great idea, and I actually kind of hated it the first time I saw it…
For starters, wunderkind Ryan Coogler (writer and director of the aforementioned Fruitvale Station) was given the creative reins, although presumably with some level of spiritual assistance from a certain old man who still knows how to work a speed bag, thank you very much. But where would they find someone able to embody the same sympathetic combination of blue collar passion and emotional vulnerability that made Rocky Balboa so universally endearing?
Have I mentioned Fruitvale Station?
Having already wrung a career defining performance out of Michael B. Jordan in that film, Coogler turned to him again for the title role in Creed. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of famed boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, appearing via archival footage), who we last saw getting murdered by Dolph Lundgren. Adonis bounced around the system for the first part of his life, and was well on his way to becoming a career criminal. Eventually, Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) intervenes, and takes Adonis in as her own.
Thus, he develops into a responsible young man, well on his way to spending eternity in a musty cubicle, filling out TPS reports and dying a little inside each day. Recognizing this he quits his job and on the eve of a huge promotion. It turns out he’s been pulling a Tyler Durden, sneaking off to Mexico on the weekends to fight in underground boxing matches. Adonis has a lot of big feelings about growing up fatherless, and decides to work through it in the ring. He attempts to sign on at the gym where his father used to train, and is turned away.
Everyone remembers what happened to his father, and they want no piece of Adonis.
Undaunted, Adonis heads to Philadelphia and looks up his father’s old friend, Rocky Balboa. Rocky is now an old man, dogged by old injuries, still mourning the death of his wife and quietly puttering his days away away at the restaurant he named after her. Adonis asks Rocky to train him, and of course Rocky says “no” – but we know he’s eventually going to do it anyway. The scene is a staple of the Rocky franchise, but here in particular it also serves as a perfect example of what I was talking about earlier. Stallone is simply at his best in this role.
Adonis approaches his would-be mentor with respect, but also with the headstrong bravado one might have associated with his father. He even works it into his pitch as a last resort, and the Champ’s reaction is palpable. This is a Rocky who’s closer to the end of his life now, than the beginning. He is estranged from his son. Lifelong friends are gone, and the highlight of his week is sitting in front of his wife’s headstone, reading the sports page. He’s a man just marking time, living without a purpose and rotting away from the inside out.
He also still blames himself for Apollo’s death. And if you don’t remember the fight in question,
Yes, we know Rocky is eventually going to change his mind. This role fits Stallone like a lambskin glove and in it, he commands the universe on screen. And he gets to dig deep into the character this time. Rocky probably grows more as a character in this film than in the last five. If this is not Stallone’s best performance, it’s certainly in the conversation. The process of watching both him and Adonis grow into these new, unexpected life roles drive this movie forward in some fascinating ways.
For example, Creed actually hits a lot of the same dramatic beats as the first film, and this is clearly intentional. But rather than feeling like a shortcut or cheap callback, it all feels natural, as though something in the universe was circling back around to give Balboa a chance to close some old wounds, and his adopted nephew a path to finally grow into the man he was meant to be. Not surprisingly, that man is a very complex person and Michael B. Jordan does a solid job of bringing him to life.
Jordan is quickly becoming one of the best actors of his generation, and you can feel free to submit this performance as evidence. Creed could have been a disaster, had it been put in the hands of lesser talent up and down the roster. But Coogler’s script is powerful stuff – deftly recreating the tone of the original in certain places, while boldly heading in new directions on its own accord. Jordan inhabits Adonis Creed almost as fully as Stallone inhabits Rocky Balboa. And just like the original film, you end up invested enough that you almost forget you’re watching a boxing movie.
But then they fight, and as usual, the fights in these films are a little over the top. My God, if real boxing was this exciting, people would still watch. This time around though, the matches are so meticulously choreographed as to mesmerize you with their brutal elegance. The rumors are true – there is a two round fight in the middle of the film that is one continuous tracking shot, and it is nothing short of breathtaking.
There is, of course, an antagonist. “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (real life boxer Tony Bellew) has a genuinely compelling backstory that makes it hard to completely root against him. Don’t misunderstand me – he’s a bad motherfucker. But his motivation is a deft creative touch that adds a nice additional layer of tension to the narrative.
And speaking of tension, there’s a plot development late in the movie that you don’t necessarily see coming, and it forces change upon the relationship between Rocky and Adonis. Like the rest of it, this could have been handled very poorly. But again, that’s not the case. I admit to being a little biased, because I have a lot of personal fondness for the character of Rocky Balboa. We all know he can take care of himself in the ring, but of course it’s the obstacles he faces on the outside that usually define how good the story’s going to be.
So it’s a testament to both the franchise and this film that there are still challenges for Rocky to face that feel meaningful. This is a big one – a powerful one – and it impacts Adonis as much as anyone. That’s not for nothing, because Adonis has his own outside-the-ring character arc.
Meaning of course, there’s a love interest. Adonis begins to cultivate a relationship with one of his neighbors, a taciturn singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson). There’s an interesting little “twist” to her character as well, although this one is the sort of flourish you’d expect out of a Lifetime movie of the week rather than a film about heavily muscled men repeatedly punching each other in the face. But as always, Creed balances the melodrama well, and it never feels forced or maudlin.
Even when they call back to the running scene from Rocky II, it was Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s anything I didn’t like about Creed. Even the soundtrack is pretty damn good. At their best, the Rocky films weave the fighting into the narrative about the people into the fighting so seamlessly, you almost can’t help but cheer at the crescendo. You want to cheer for Rocky even when it feels stupid, and damned if Creed doesn’t hit you the same way.
I want them to make another one. I consider this above all a testament to Ryan Coogler, and he’d be well served to place Creed at or near the top of his resume.
This is just a really damn good movie, plain and simple. And when you think about it, that’s really all I needed to say, I guess. So, just forget everything I’ve said and let me start over.
Hello, I just watched a Rocky movie. And I’m actually, genuinely, really looking forward to the next one!
Enough said. Thank you.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."