I will sheepishly admit that when I first heard about the concept of Creed, there may have been some eye rolling involved. Rocky Balboa training the son of his one time foe and eventual friend Apollo Creed? It seemed like a desperate attempt to revitalize a franchise that I didn’t believe needed it. 2006’s Rocky Balboa had some nice moments, but itself seemed an often unnecessary entry for Sylvester Stallone to bring the Italian Stallion back to the screen. Sixteen years prior, Rocky V was and is correctly regarded as an embarrassment. Five years prior and 30 years ago is the last time we saw Apollo, lying on the mat after taking a fatal blow from Russian fighter Ivan Drago.
In Creed, we learn the late Apollo has a son from the result of an affair. Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is a product of the juvenile detention system in L.A. who can’t seem to stop fighting other kids. He soon learns his lineage from Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) and it affords him a comfortable life growing up. Donnie can’t stay away from the ring, however. This means meaningless bouts in Tijuana in a low key resume that may be due to the fact that he won’t make public that he’s the offspring of a boxing legend.
Donnie wants something more and it leads him to Philadelphia, in hopes of being trained by Stallone’s iconic Balboa. Just as in the 2006 predecessor, Rocky now leads a quiet life running his restaurant and spending much time in the cemetery carrying on conversations with his beloved late wife Adrian and now Uncle Paulie as well. He’s hesitant to train Donnie but his loyalty to Apollo takes precedence. Circumstances lead to a shot at the title, just like with young Rock nearly 40 years ago. And it forges a friendship between the pair that takes many dramatic turns and is truly quite touching.
The Philly pilgrimage gives Donnie a love interest with his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who is gradually losing her hearing. Their well-written romance includes a moment where Donnie asks her what she’ll do when she’s no longer able to do what she loves. Bianca responds that she has to keep going until she can’t anymore. Of course, that metaphor applies to Donnie. And Rocky. And even Donnie’s opponent “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), an English brawler whose championship is about to surrendered to an upcoming prison sentence.
This brings us to Ryan Coogler, the writer (along with Aaron Covington) and director of Creed. Mr. Coogler gained acclaim for his debut pic Fruitvale Station which served as a breakout role for Jordan. Stallone has smartly handed over screenplay and directorial duties to this up and comer. Coogler imbues this series with a grittiness and emotional resonance that hasn’t been seen since the Oscar winning original. It allows Stallone to focus on his performance, which is quite something to behold. He permits us to see Rocky as in many ways a broken man who is given one last chance to do something he loves (just not in the ring). Jordan is very impressive as well and the whole idea of this concept being a gimmick is forgotten quickly. Much of this is due to the complexities and nuance that Jordan brings to the proceedings.
The boxing scenes are also extremely well constructed and easily the most realistic we’ve seen in the franchise. That may not be saying much, truth be told. When Balboa fought Donnie’s father’s executioner in Russia, the punch thrown to landed percentage was about 110%. Creed at least makes noble attempts to make the sport kind of look like it does.
Coogler has made a legitimate accomplishment here, managing to present a poignant partnership between Donnie and his legendary teacher. Many of us fondly recall Rocky running up those steps in the City of Brotherly Love. There’s a variation of that here and its metaphorical meaning may well bring tears to your eyes. Who would have thought we’d see that level of depth in this franchise? Kudos to Stallone for allowing a young and gifted filmmaker to enter the ring here and kudos to Coogler for giving Stallone this opportunity to take his most famous role in unforeseen and enriching directions.
***1/2 (out of four)