Creed shouldn’t work. As an extension of the Rocky series, which found the 1976 Best Picture Oscar winner followed by a series of increasingly bad sequels until 2006’s Rocky Balboa let the series go out on a high, this new film’s focus on the previously unmentioned illegitimate son of Apollo Creed could be dismissed as a cynical move in an era of making every hit into a “universe.” And yet, Creed doesn’t just hit certain marks to identify it as a Rocky film – it’s the first film to feel like an actual successor to Rocky.
The film opens with a prologue in a juvenile detention hall, where two kids are fighting in a room. The scrappier of the two is young Adonis Johnson, who is the product of an extramarital affair his since-deceased mother had with Apollo Creed. Adonis was born after Apollo’s death in a boxing match (as seen in Rocky IV). After this incident, the latest in a series of violent outbursts, Adonis is taken in by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Mary Anne treats Adonis (Michael B. Jordan as an adult) as one of her own children, which affords Adonis with an affluent lifestyle in Los Angeles and positioning for a cushy corporate job. But the kid who would take on other kids larger than him still needs to fight, and Adonis wants to channel it into the boxing ring, just like his father.
As Mary Anne is quick to point out, the life of a boxer isn’t glamorous, and many of the fighters get into the game in part because they have a financial disadvantage Adonis was able to avoid. The film underlines this bit of class difference as Adonis winning a fight in Tijuana abruptly cuts to Adonis wearing a nice shirt and tie behind a desk in an office. Mary Anne’s concern doesn’t deter Adonis, though. Determined to pursue his dreams, and finding it impossible to find a trainer in Los Angeles, Adonis quits his job and moves to Philadelphia, where he hopes to coax his father’s opponent-turned-friend, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), into training him. The two slowly begin to teach each other both in and out of the ring. Adonis also strikes up a relationship with his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a talented musician who’s beginning to go deaf.
The relationship between Adonis and Rocky quickly becomes the heart of the film, and it tells a lot about both men in the process. Adonis has two clear motives in the film, and they’re distinct: he wants to build a reputation on his own record, but he also wants his trainer to be a man with a direct connection to his father in a way he’s never known. Adonis clearly longs for a connection to Apollo, but also wants to keep his legacy at a distance, and Adonis is clearly intent on having it both ways. It shows in the way his presence dominates the ring, and in the way he’s able to let his guard down around Rocky.
For Rocky, it’s about taking a compassionate man and putting him into a new role. Rocky is reluctant to take Adonis on, because he doesn’t view himself as a trainer. It’s clear from his reputation around Philadelphia that plenty of fighters want Rocky to train them, but Adonis offers Rocky something he needs. Rocky’s beloved Adrian and brother-in-law Paulie are both dead, and his son has moved away. Rocky is a lonely man without a family, and Adonis provides Rocky with a chance to make a connection.
As Adonis bonds with Rocky, his relationship with Bianca also grows. While it’s a definite subplot for the film, it’s unusually strong. Adonis’ relationship with Bianca gives him a love interest who understands pursuing a dream that could end tragically, and watching their relationship grow as they encounter ways their paths will be similar and different creates something unique.
These relationships are bolstered by strong performances from Jordan, Thompson and Stallone. Jordan continues to impress as an actor, and he wisely avoids emulating Rocky or Apollo. He digs into the character, with all of Adonis’ issues, while still making him incredibly likable. Thompson pairs nicely with Jordan, and there’s a confidence to her performance that makes it clear why Adonis is quickly smitten with Bianca. As for Stallone, his performance here ranks up with his first turn as Rocky as the best work that Stallone’s done as an actor. While Rocky is still recognizably Rocky, Stallone manages to create a far more moving take on the character than the Rocky sequels provided.
Also deserving of credit is writer/director Ryan Coogler. Coogler broke through with Jordan on their previous collaboration, Fruitvale Station, and their follow-up proves that film wasn’t a fluke. He takes ownership of this series, tapping into the spirit of the first film while making Creed distinctively its own film. Visually, it’s a far more impressive effort than the series has shown before, and it’s highlighted by two matches. The second one relies on effective editing, which creates a terrific build, but the first match is astonishing: it’s shot to appear as a single take of a brutal fight. It’s a breathtaking approach to a fight that I can’t recall ever seeing used in a boxing film before.
Creed may be the seventh film in the Rocky universe, but it’s learned from those films what aspects work best and incorporated them into something surprising. It’s a fresh story with a new protagonist every bit as compelling as Rocky himself. It is, by far, the best possible outcome for this type of film, and it should be a model to any other long-dormant series looking for a reboot or continuation.