Creed rewrites the history of the Rocky series. It turns out that Apollo Creed has an illegitimate son named Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), born sometime after Apollo dies in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago. We first meet Adonis as a young boy in a juvenile detention facility, with no idea of who his father is, and constantly in trouble for picking fights. Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) visits him there and reveals his heritage to him. She also offers to take him in. Fast-forward to present day, and Adonis is struggling with the confines of his normal life. He wants to fight, but no trainer in LA wants to take him on. So he travels to Philadelphia, and looks up his father’s best friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), and asks for his help in training.
On a narrative and dramatic level, Creed doesn’t really do much more than recontextualize Rocky. There isn’t really anything in here story-wise that should surprise anyone who’s seen the original. But this is not a problem. The Rocky formula proves to be as sturdy as it has ever been. The film goes back to the heart of the original, pruning away the accumulated excess of the intervening decades. There is a reason Rocky is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Creed is wise to follow in its footsteps.
People seem to forget that Rocky wasn’t really about winning the big fight. It wasn’t really even about boxing. It was a social drama that explored a hard knock life in Philadelphia that happened to have boxing involved in the plot. Boxing was the only chance Rocky Balboa had at any sort of redemption, the only thing that could give this thug any sort of direction. Creed takes the same tack, focusing more on the personal story of this young man terrified by legacy yet unable to move away. Adonis needs to fight, and he believes he can fight. What he worries about is taking on the name.
The film reflects his eventual choice. This film doesn’t run from the legacy of Rocky. It embraces it, acknowledging at every turn just how great the original is. Its echoes can be seen everywhere, the film actively recreating bits and pieces in the story, the shooting, and the score. But then it adds on it, bringing its own flavor to the proceedings. It brings new attitude, and explores a world that is fundamentally different. It explores Philadelphia with fresh eyes, the young Adonis discovering the city for the very first time, with Rocky Balboa as his guide.
A lot of that flavor can be attributed to the direction. Ryan Coogler is reverent, but doesn’t shy away from bringing his own touches. There is a bravura fight sequence in here that happens all in one take. It is immediately one of the best boxing matches ever shot. The film is lengthy, yet still snappy thanks to the lively filmmaking. Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Adonis Creed, but this movie really belongs to the aging Sylvester Stallone, who finds new dimensions to Rocky Balboa in his twilight years.
Creed doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It is instead proof positive of the timelessness of the original movie. Rocky has plenty of imitators, but few seem to really understand what that film is about. The film’s legacy has evolved in the decades that have passed, and people seem to remember the first film as a bombastic Hollywood sports picture, rather than the quirky drama that it really was. But Creed remembers, and it learns its lessons well. It understands that the real fighting takes place outside the ring.