Directed by: Ryan Coogler
The Plot: Stop the presses people… Apollo Creed has a love child. An orphan who has lived the first part of his life in and out of group homes and detention centers is adopted by Mary Ann Creed, (Phylicia Rashad) Apollo’s widow. Though Adonis (Michael B. Jordon) isn’t her biological son she decides to raise the child and take on Apollo’s postmortem responsibilities. Upon adulthood Adonis struggles with creating his own identity as an amateur fighter, eschewing the Creed name altogether. Fighting instead under the name Don ‘Hollywood’ Johnson, he seeks out the training of former heavyweight champ Rocky Balboa, long since retired from the sport.
The Film: Ryan Coogler, in a stroke of brilliance, has created an imitator Rocky movie about an imitator professional fighter. I use the word imitator, not as a slight, but to describe the solemn, self-referential spirit of the film. Folks sitting at home might catch the TV spots for Creed and think: Who is this Creed kid? Wait a minute… is that Rocky Balboa? Rest assured Lords and Ladies of Sofa and Lounger, characters in this film go through the same thought process. Adonis Creed is many things – he’s a running commentary on the issue of professional athletes spawning broods they have no desire to raise, a fighter plunged into a fight ranking he is hopelessly underdressed for, an effigy of the sensational collaborative magic between Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan – but above all else, he is a perpetrator in the Rocky Balboa universe.
So why is this a compliment?
Because both Coogler and his new film, Creed, are wholly aware of it. Creed isn’t a money grab or cheap, commercial knock-off, simply because the payday in the film is never about cash, it’s all about honor. Honoring nearly forty years of history at this point. Creed sets about the business of earning the right to call itself a “Rocky movie” even while Adonis Creed earns his own right to exist as the frontman in the “Rocky franchise.” Soon to be “Creed franchise.”
This statement is never more defined than in the press conference scene between “Pretty” Ricky Conlan and his manager (played by Tommy Holiday – who after Rambo IV and Creed should star in everything Stallone is involved with) and Adonis and Balboa. Coogler smartly chooses not to present Conlan as anything as melodramatic as a villain or a final boss, instead he’s a fighter born out of the Irish working class. He fought to get to be the world champion in his division, his issue with Adonis Creed is the kid’s lived mostly a life of privilege. Adonis only arrived at this opportunity because of mistakes Conlan himself has made, and then only because he carries an instantly marketable name to earn maximum pay-per-view dollars. In a thick plug of street Irish he points to Balboa sitting next to Creed and says: “If you want to see a fighter who worked for everything he has, look at the man sitting next to Adonis Creed.” Of course he’s right, and of course Adonis Creed knows it. He shouldn’t have caught this break, the scary part is that Conlan, who is pound for pound the best fighter in the world, isn’t going to be giving him one once the fight is on.
So why is Balboa in Creed’s corner? First off, there was a time when Apollo Creed stepped into Balboa’s corner during the Clubber Lang fight. Second off, Baby Creed (never call him that to his face) is a legit fighter. He may not be a legit contender, but years of scrapping in juvenile detention centers and brawling in quasi-sanctioned Tijuana boxing exhibitions has created something of an elegant monster in the ring. Third off, like Balboa, Adonis Creed is a bit of an old soul. Toss out whatever preconceptions you may have as to what Creed’s lead might be about. Adonis isn’t a thug, nor is he using boxing as a way to keep his nose clean. Like Rocky Balboa, Adonis has lived in two worlds – one of disadvantage and one of privilege. The result has created men more perceptive than their years – either too old or too young – or choice of occupation may indicate. Both men aren’t victims of anything other than circumstance.
There are many moments in this film to applaud, that indeed will make any audience break out into near mandatory applause, (there’s a three minute boxing round shot in a single take in this movie that will absolutely flatten you) but of all the young filmmaker’s decisions to cheer for it’s his drive to keep his film on the up and up, and this new character he’s written a positive role model. Which isn’t to say that Adonis Creed isn’t a kid struggling with issues, it’s just that he’s willing to unlearn everything that got him under Balboa’s tutelage, and put in the work to rebuild himself into something he can finally be proud of.
Creed is a film, above all else, about finding confidence, and not a payday – although I’m sure the studio heads at MGM would argue otherwise. It’s a film about getting out from under the shadow of everything that came before it – the six previous Rocky movies, but most of all, Adonis’s relationship with his father’s ghost, and not his father – and about creating its own, easy-to-spell identity:
C. R. E. E. D.
There is a telling scene in this film where Balboa (Stallone should hold his head high for the flat-out phenomenal performance he delivers in this movie) is reading his newspaper aloud to Adrian and Pauly’s headstones. He suddenly stops in mid-story, looks up at the sky, thinks on all the life going on outside of this graveyard and not his cherished world of the past, folds his paper and his chair, stands up, and walks out of the cemetery he’s buried his beloved dead in and into the newly forming story of Adonis Creed. Coogler doesn’t put this moment in the movie as an indication that Rocky Balboa is passing any torch along, this scene is in the film because it’s about Rocky finding a new place in the modern world. Creed is a film about choosing to live, not in the past nor fully in the future, but in the turbulent mesh of both called the now.
The Verdict: If you grew up shadowboxing your way through theater parking lots after a visit with the latest Rocky movie you’re going to immediately identify with the story of Adonis Creed. You also might be surprised to find yourself sick with stomach knots and riddled with goosebumps as this new kid rises to fight ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan with the full might of Rick Conti’s Gonna Fly Now behind him. He may have walked to ringside in Liverpool’s soccer stadium with Tupac Shakur’s Hail Mary playing, (a fitting song title considering the prospects of this matchup) but the charitable spirit of Rocky fully possesses Adonis Creed when Conti’s anthem links both past and present into a single, cohesive moment of both requiem and resurrection. Gonna Fly Now has never been a song of assured victory, but a song of the will to fight. Creed has a ton of fight in it. It also has a ton of heart. One of the best films of the year.