The series that gave us “Eye of the Tiger,” “Gonna Fly Now,” and “Hearts on Fire” is back with the newest installment of the Rocky multiverse. Following up on 2006’s more-or-less respectable Rocky Balboa, Creed once again re-tells the classic Rocky story with Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis Creed (one-time Human Torch Michael B. Jordan) in the main role with restaurateur Balboa (Stallone) as his trainer. And shockingly, this movie ends up being a fine addition to the Academy Award-winning legacy borne by the Italian Stallion.
The first thing to remember in going into this quasi-reboot is that trying to compare Creed to the original Rocky is unfair. The original 1976 film is such an iconic piece of filmmaking and Americana that it cannot be duplicated … no matter how many times Hollywood tries to redo the underdog sports movie (i.e. every sports movie). The success of that film revolved around more than just the story, which is about as basic as you can get, but about how it was told. The gritty and grainy quality that essentially defined 1970’s filmmaking really helped in creating an ambiance that hammered home just how dire the circumstances were in bicentennial Philadelphia. The original further encapsulated that desperation in its characters, namely that of Rocky and Adrian. You understood that this was all they had; they weren’t particularly bright or capable people and boxing was their only hope to escape a life of essentially poverty.
2015 movies have a difficulty really capturing that element of hopelessness. Unlike Rocky and Adrian, Adonis and his love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) don’t have that same sort of weight bearing down on them. One comes from a rich family (the Apollo Creed estate has apparently been handled very well) with a loving mother and the other seems to be a moderately successful local musician without a significant amount of baggage. Neither of them need boxing in the way that their predecessors did, but that doesn’t lessen the yearning to be greater the and importance of the sport to the younger Creed.
These different circumstances offers a nice alternative to just reiterating the Rocky story with another pair of down-and-out aspiring lovers looking to the ring for hope. It helps show that the overall theme of Rocky is (or should be) relatable to pretty much anyone, regardless of their status and upbringing. Adonis’ desire to enter boxing is not to become his father, but to establish his own legacy and his own name, to prove himself as something more than his “birthright.” This works in differentiating the movie from the original line while allowing it to remain true to its spirit.
The casting helps a good deal. Jordan is likeable and believable in the role– though perhaps too even keeled for someone who claims to be “fighting his whole life”. Thompson fares well enough in the underwritten love interest role. And Stallone continues to provide Rocky Balboa with the humble simplicity that turned the actor and the character into cinematic legends; he thankfully allows Johnson to take control of the show. Additionally, Phylicia Rashad has a small role as Mrs. Creed. Ironically, the film lacks an antagonist with the scene-stealing charisma and showmanship of Carl Weathers’ original Apollo Creed. Adonis gets a perfunctory villain in boxing champion ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (real life boxer Tony Bellew); he’s not bad, but he lacks the presence to be memorable.
Outside of the performances, there are other things to appreciate in Creed. There’s a genuine sense of universe and history within the film. Decades after his death, Apollo Creed is still respected as a boxer. Similarly, Rocky Balboa is seen as a sports icon and hometown legend, even if he still carries himself as the same schlub from Philly. Just because the movies ended, doesn’t mean the world forgot about the characters. Like with real professional athletes after their retirements, the better ones are not merely forgotten, they’re still discussed and compared to today’s athletes. Creed recognizes this element of sports journalism, and seeing reporters discuss Balboa and Creed Sr. as though they were real gives a real weight to the previous 40 years. Although the film at times can feel like nothing but a montage of training montages (there are a lot of training montages), director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) occasionally throws in the nice visual flourish – such as an early fight cleverly edited to look like it’s one smooth, single flowing take. (The fake single take technique has become very common recently – among its most notable use was in the opening sequence in Spectre, but it hasn’t worn out its welcome yet and is still a nice change of pace than shaky cam fight scenes.)
However, one of the most remarkable things to give Creed credit for is having a relatively simple straight forward story. While this might seem like a backhanded compliment, it’s a welcome reprieve from most major movies that end up becoming overstuffed with attention-distracting B and C plots that seem to solely exist to bolster the running time. While the 132-minute running time is still a bit too long for a movie like this, thankfully Creed doesn’t overload itself. It’s a welcome restraint in a genre where you can easily fit in storylines involving paying off mobsters to settle a gambling debt, having to save some sort of house or training facility, or encountering a long-lost relative seeking to gain their own fame. While the film has the traditional “all is lost” moment (one so insignificant you have to wonder why they included it in the first place), it doesn’t really add that much baggage to the film and is easily shuffled aside. For the most part, the movie is basic – aspiring boxer learns how to box, gets a love interest, boxes, and fights in the championship. Creed doesn’t have much more than that because it wisely realizes it doesn’t need more than that.
But the most important thing to ask about the Rocky franchise is – is it a crowdpleaser? And the answer is yes. The audience at the advanced screening (not a critic’s screening) I saw it at was into the movie. They laughed in the right places, cheered in the right places, and became involved in the final fight. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what you want from a Rocky movie?
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Although part of a franchise that has spent most of its life as a joke, Creed is remarkably a worthy successor to the Academy Award-winning original Best Picture Winner (one that beat both Network and Taxi Driver). While Creed might lack the heavier emotional components of the first film, it represents the spirit of Rocky perhaps better than any other film in the series. Now let’s hope it stops before we get to Adonis Creed fighting a North Korean superman.