In Rocky, Sylvester Stallone created one of American cinema’s most indelible icons, and managed to put a little genuine heart and levity into the doom which hung over the most popular films of the 70s. Rocky’s popularity allowed for a franchise, one which quickly devolved into 80s excess and insane, Reagan-era, American exceptionalism. In the last decade, Stallone brought both his most popular characters back to earth with a more human Rocky Balboa, and a slightly-less-human-but-way-more-grounded Rambo. Now, the veteran filmmaker/actor has handed down the reigns to a new generation of talent, and director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) has taken to this franchise with undeniable dramatic prowess.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is a natural born fighter. He spends the earliest years of his life facing tough streets, then opponents in Juvenile Hall, until he is given a home by his father’s wife. Mary Anne Creed (the great Phylicia Rashad), widow to Apollo, has discovered her late husband sired a child during a time of infidelity, so she track the boy down. Several years later, Adonis has lived a life of privilege, thanks to the exuberant wealth his father left in death. He is educated, and has recently been promoted at his unidentified business-y job, but it can’t hold his concentration. He spends every moment he can off the clock knocking out untrained fighters in the boxing rings of Mexican border towns. Unable to find a trainer, even at his father’s gym, he leaves his life in L.A., to find his father’s old challenger and friend, Rocky Balboa, in Philadelphia. Though he is still a local legend, the aging boxer is reluctant to face the ring again, but can’t deny the son of Apollo Creed. Together, they face personal struggles, and search for a new legacy.
As Adonis, the brilliantly compelling Michael B. Jordan has finally found the roll to launch him into superstardom. The strong script (co-written by Coogler and Aaron Covington) is tailor-made for weighty performance, as it creates clear and powerful motivations for every decision every character makes, but never puts too much of that motivation in its words, and that restraint brings out incredible playing from the excellent cast. Adonis finds romance in meeting his noisy musician neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and to call her his “love interest” would be doing a great disservice to her perfectly-penned character. She is richly drawn, complex, and fascinating, and the two of them have such palpable chemistry, that even a simple facial expression creates enough sexual tension as to make the film feel voyeuristic. The reality of their attraction almost made me feel like I shouldn’t be watching them at times.
The quality performing doesn’t end with them. Every actor is pulling his/her weight, and even the often hit-or-miss Stallone brings gut-wrenching humanity to his familiar role. In Creed, the old star does his finest work since the original Rocky, and its hard to believe this is the same guy who lazily strolled through three Expendables movies like he could care less. Here, he is committed to what is clearly a labor of love.
Formally and structurally, nothing in Creed is by any means new. The art of this film won’t be what anyone walks away from in awe, and the story is certainly a familiar one. Normally, I would feel the need to criticize a film for not bringing more originality, and especially for giving short shrift to its visuals. It derives its storytelling from so many sport movies, and borrows most heavily from its own franchise. I admit that’s not an aspect worthy of applause, but practically everything else we find in Creed is.