Who doesn’t love a good underdog story, right? The irony of Ryan Coogler’s rousing, spirited, and totally unlikely “Creed” is that it is the ultimate underdog. Like the great Rocky Balboa himself, the film had to battle against nay-sayers practically from the beginning; those who scoffed at the idea that the once-great franchise could ever bounce back, much less in a spinoff on the son of his greatest foe. And yet the film is not only the franchise’s most visually dynamic, it’s an emotional powerhouse that recaptures everything that made “Rocky” great.
Let’s be honest…nobody was asking for a seventh “Rocky” movie. The Italian Stallion’s story has long since been told with nothing really new to add, right? There was always the “passing the torch” option out there, and in a way that’s what this is. But the trick behind Creed is how it both embraces boxing movie clichés, specifically Rocky clichés, while dodging and weaving others. Of course, it also benefits from the proven pairing of “Fruitvale Station”‘s Coogler and Michael B. Jordan. For Coogler it re-confirms him as a great cultural filmmaker, able to easily capture the mood and feel of both L.A. and Philadelphia. For Jordan it’s a reminder of how great a physical actor he can be when given the right material to work with.
Flashbacks tell us the early story of Adonis Johnson (Jordan), a troubled L.A. kid shuffling through the juvenile detention system and certainly destined for a bad end. He’s a fighter; he can’t seem to stay out of them, actually. It’s like fighting is in his blood. That’s because it is, he learns, when he gets a visit from Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) who informs him of his heritage. Turns out that late boxing legend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, seen only in photos and old footage) had an illegitimate son. Mary Anne, who turns out to be Apollo’s widow, brings Adonis home where he begins studying his father’s old fights. Years later and he’s a talented young fighter, albeit in the illegal underground circuit. Quitting his boring white-collar job, Adonis decides to fight full time over Mary Anne’s objections. So he heads to Philadelphia to train in the sweet science, and connect with his father’s nemesis-turned-friend, Rocky Balboa.
And naturally this brings Sylvester Stallone into the picture, reprising his most famous role once again. For the first time it’s not Stallone penning Rocky’s latest chapter, with those responsibilities falling to Coogler and Aaron Covington. The result is a Rocky that feels more genuine than he has in years; less like a caricature or walking advertisement for brain trauma. Adonis wants Rocky to train him, put some of that old school knowledge into a new school fighter. Rocky’s not into it at first; he’s settled in his ways. He’s slowed down. Something’s up with him. But he likes Adonis and sees his talent. The least he can do is teach the kid how to channel his rage for the ring, rather than letting it eat him up inside. They become close, and when Adonis hooks up with the beautiful musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson, fantastic as always), she becomes part of their newly-formed and close-knit family unit.
Adonis is a bit of an entitled jerk. He’s got the family name but none of the cred to go with it. He doesn’t want people to know who his father was in hopes of making it on his own. Of course, it’s the name “Creed” that gets him a title shot against the champ (played by real-life boxer Anthony Bellew) way before he’s ready. The training montages are pure Rocky; chickens will get chased in this little scenario. All it needs is the crackling voice of Burgess Meredith for the full nostalgic effect. But Coogler adds plenty of new, modern touches, invoking the urban dirt biking culture for an incredibly stirring jogging sequence. If you aren’t ready to step into the ring yourself and fight after that, you simply aren’t alive. The film is awash in “Rocky” references and imagery, but also sticks to the well-worn formula. While it works in telling a story everyone will want to stand up and cheer for, it does miss a few opportunities to truly stand on its own.
Fortunately, “Creed” delivers so many spirited moments that a little familiarity isn’t much of a problem. The boxing scenes themselves are visceral, brutal, and shot with an energy that puts you right into the fighters’ boots. Rocky may want to teach Adonis how to fight smart, but what would these movies be without two guys getting pummeled like piñatas? Defense? What’s that? In these scenes Jordan is incredibly convincing. He has the look and the nimble movements of a trained pugilist.
Is this the beginning of a “Creed” franchise? That’s hard to say; but let’s say that it’s not. If it all ends here we can say that for one more film the “Rocky” franchise burned its brightest. Seeing as how this is far and away the best “Rocky” movie since the first one, it’d be nice to see the champ step back in the ring at least one more time.