Like the Italian Stallion himself, the Rocky franchise just won’t stay down. The original 1976 film is a classic not only of sports movies but also of cinema in general; an underdog story that shows it’s not about winning, but about seeing it through to the end. After that, the franchise has had its ups and downs. Rocky II and III were decent sequels, IV is amongst the cheesiest 80s movies ever but enjoyable in its own way, V kind of sucks, and then Rocky Balboa closed out the franchise with true class…until now. However, Creed is less a continuation of the Rocky story and more of a new beginning within the same universe; similar in narrative and theme, but built for a new generation.
First and foremost, Creed has immense respect for the series legacy. Though not totally fuelled by nostalgia, there are loads of Easter eggs for Rocky fans to find throughout. It’s clear the filmmakers love these movies and want to make sure you know it, but they make sure to add plenty of new flavour too. The film’s story of Balboa training a protégé is actually most similar to the plot of Rocky V, but with the tone of the original and the style of Balboa.
The main plot moves along similarly to the other films with similar narrative beats, but much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens it changes up the details just enough to remain fresh. Instead of a nobody given a miraculous shot at stardom, it’s about a man living in the shadow of his father and trying to follow in his path without relying on his name; it’s just as relatable a theme. The film moves along at a solid clip, perhaps a little too lengthy, but it’s paced well and never lets momentum slip for too long, ending on a note that perfectly sums up the film and the entire franchise in a nutshell.
Even though you know how this is probably going to work out, becoming invested in the story of Creed is simple and that’s because the characters are engaging and relatable. Michael B. Jordan is fantastic as Adonis Creed, a man just as determined as his father Apollo but replacing the character’s showmanship and cheer with understandable insecurity. There are small shades of Carl Weathers in Jordan’s performance, but Adonis is far more a character of the actor’s own creation and he does a fantastic job of portraying a stalwart but fearful young man; his reaction right before he’s about to go out for his first big fight perfectly encapsulates what’s going through his mind.
Sylvester Stallone rarely flexes his acting muscles these days, but with Rocky being his creation he’s certainly not sleepwalking through this one. He slips back into the hat of Balboa as if the last film took place a week ago, playing the character with a similar mindset to when we last saw him but with an even greater awareness of his mortality. His relationship with Jordan is flawless and sells the film by itself, bantering back and forth and exchanging wisdom in human ways that never feel forced or cheesy. Stallone hasn’t given a performance this good since…well, the last Rocky movie, and it easily ranks up there with his career best. Tessa Thompson is a wonderful find as Jordan’s musician love interest Bianca, keeping the same emotional core as Rocky’s relationship with Adrian but with completely different character dynamics, but she’s also a very fascinating character on her own; you could make a whole movie about her story and it’d be compelling in its own way.
The main weak spot of the film, however, is its adversary in Tony Bellew’s Ricky Conlan. He’s a menacing physical presence and the film attempts to give him some back story and motivation, but he doesn’t have that immediate iconic aura the way that adversaries like Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago and, yes, Apollo Creed himself had. Conlan’s hardly an important part of the film beyond being that final hurdle to cross, but he’s just a little too generic of a character.
Ryan Coogler proved his directing chops with the heart-wrenching indie drama Fruitvale Station, and with Creed he proves he can play in the big leagues too. The film has the confidence of a seasoned pro behind the camera, and every technical element delivers on all fronts. The cinematography remains simple and gritty during most scenes, but when it’s time to fight it gloriously shows off the spectacle by taking you into the ring and letting the action play out in long dynamic shots; it adds a visceral sense of realism even most of the good Rocky movies lacked.
Backed up by crisp editing and crunching sound design, the boxing scenes are for once just as good if not better than the main drama. Special mention must also go to Ludwig Goransson’s excellent work on the score that only contains hints of Bill Conti’s classic compositions early on and slowly amps them up as the film continues, synchronising brilliantly with Adonis’ own progression as a boxer.
Creed is a more than worthy addition to the Rocky pantheon, paying respect to its forbearers whilst forging its own path to continue the story in new ways. Jordan and Stallone as a team are the true heart and soul of the film, complimenting each other spectacularly in one of the best mentor-student relationships in recent memory. Nobody was particularly asking for another Rocky movie, and though Creed shares its DNA it stands alone as a quality sports movie for this generation, and proves even tired franchises can be reborn with the help of a little youthful spirit.