The success of the Rocky franchise can be mainly attributed to the good ol’ underdog story. Though, winner of the best picture in 1976, the first instalment in the series was much more — a love story and an in-depth character study. In Creed, writer-director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) perfectly captures the more nuanced intricacies of the original Rocky opposed to the ridiculousness of later films (looking at you, Tommy Gun).
Creed sees Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) struggling without the guidance of his father Apollo. With the absence of his parents, much of Adonis’ childhood is spent between group homes and juvenile detention, where he constantly gets in fights. Adonis resents the father he never knew and hides his last name in an attempt to carve his own path. He wants to be a fighter and is naturally adept without any formal training. No one wants to train ‘silver spoon’. This leads to him recruiting the reclusive Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Rocky feels indebted to his old friend Apollo, and reluctantly agrees.
Michael B. Jordan is excellent as he echoes the arrogance of his fast-talking father while showing self-doubt and emotional fragility. Stallone doesn’t just come back for the pay cheque either, he adds depth to Rocky formerly unseen. His portrayal is not only honest and understated, the indestructible Rocky is now fragile. He could easily have won Best Supporting Actor. Rocky and Adonis share great chemistry too, as Rocky acts as both trainer and father figure for Adonis. After the death of his wife and sometimes best-friend Pauli, and the absence of his son (who has always been the worst), Rocky finds comfort in having someone in his life again. Coogler allows plenty of quiet, restrained moments between the two which are as entertaining as the scenes in the ring. This is complemented by Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a budding musician and Adonis’ romantic interest. She does not feel inserted purely to serve the story; she has struggles of her own.
In Rocky, Philadelphia was as much of a character as the man himself. In Creed, Coogler uses the city again as a metaphor for the passing of the torch to Adonis, a new generation of fighter. Quads and dirt bikes wiz through suburban streets to a hip-hop heavy soundtrack boasting Tupac, Nas, Future, and Philly native Meek Mill. Tessa Thompson even worked with composer Ludwig Goransson on the trippy techno songs her character performs. This may sound out of place, but it never feels it. Both the soundtrack and the depiction of Philadelphia act to contrast the old Rocky with the new Creed.
It wouldn’t be Rocky without fight sequences and the film boasts some of the best in the series. The first fight sees a continuous shot track the fighters as they trade vicious blows. The camera dances between fighters, placing the audience firmly in the ring, ensuring they feel the connection of every punch. The final fight with antagonist ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Real life fighter, Tony Bellew) doesn’t disappoint either. On the press circui, Jordan spoke about taking real punches during filming, and the hits pay off. Coogler even adds a unique twist to the training montage synonymous with Rocky movies.
While the film stands on its own feet, longtime fans will still find many references to the Rocky lineage. These are best discovered in your own viewing, but as Michael B. Jordan said when talking to Bill Simmons “There are plenty of breadcrumbs for you”. Coogler hits the perfect spot in making a sequel or reboot; the original films are not essential viewing for newcomers, but there is plenty there for long time fans. Creed is a standout entry into the Rocky collection, and marks the start of a new franchise which is in extremely capable hands. While not sharing the name in the title there is no mistaking this is a Rocky film, and it not only lives up to the name, like Adonis, it stands valiantly on it’s own.