“He’s a good kid. He just … fights. All the time.”
I’m not going to lie, I had serious trepidation about Creed. I just didn’t see the point. Did we need a new chapter to the boxing saga that began almost 40 years ago with Rocky? Don’t get me wrong, I adore the iconic 1976 film. I even carry a lot of affection for the four, increasingly laughable sequels it spawned between 1979 and 1990. So much so that when Stallone revisited the character in Rocky Balboa (2006), I was happy to buy the ticket and take the ride. And there was much to savor in Stallone’s supposed swan song as Balboa. The emotional, doe-eyed film felt like the goodbye that “The Italian Stallion” deserved.
Nine years later, there hardly seemed any more story to tell. Writer/Director Ryan Coogler would beg to differ … and thank God for that. Creed is a stunning new entry to the Rocky-verse. Forgoing “Eye Of The Tiger” nostalgia, Creed pays deference to its origins while building its own, resonant tale of triumph. I love it when a movie proves me wrong.
Creed opens in 1998 as chaos breaks the quiet cadence of a Los Angeles juvenile detention center. In the middle of the scrum and wailing on a fellow detainee is perpetual ward-of-the-state, Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson). Toughened by too many years in group homes, Adonis is not impressed when stalwart Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad) pays him a visit. Writing her off as another social worker, Adonis keeps her at bay with harsh words and clenched fist. It’s not until she tells him who his father was and offers him a new life that he begins to listen. In a beautifully observed moment, Coogler draws his camera toward the bitter youth’s face as it softens and then his fist as it unclenches … maybe for the first time in his life. This is where Adonis Creed begins.
Skillfully setting the tone, Coogler brings his film to the present where little Adonis has grown into “Donnie” (a chiseled Michael B. Jordan). Working for a high-powered investment firm in LA, Donnie still goes by the name Johnson. He spends his spare time watching YouTube videos of his late father and crossing the border for unsanctioned fights in Tijuana. Though gentler and more intelligent, Donnie is still a beast of a fighter. Too raw to back up the sizable chip on his shoulder, Donnie is frozen out of professional boxing by the legacy of a name he refuses to use. With LA a bust, Donnie trades his privileged life in the sun for the gray streets of Philadelphia. There he hopes that his father’s old friend & nemesis Rocky Balboa will help him become the fighter he knows he can be. He finds Balboa (Stallone – never better) still tending shop at his lovingly named restaurant, Adrian’s. But Rocky has no interest in taking on a project. With everything on the line, Donnie can’t take no for an answer and charms the former Champ into coming on board.
And, well … you have an idea where this is headed. For the most part you’re right. This is a Rocky movie after all. Over the course of two-plus hours, Coogler bobs and weaves his way through formulaic tragedies, triumphs and epic training montages in service a story befitting its iconic origins. But Coogler never allows that formula to tie up his story and guides Creed through its punchy dramatic territory by subverting cheap sentimentality with raw emotion. In the process, he crafts the most grounded Rocky film in the series.
Turns out, grounding is just what the Rocky-verse needed. Employing the naturalistic style glimpsed in his feature debut, Fruitvale Station (2013), Coogler finds the soul of Creed not in the ring, but in the dingy gyms and shady side-streets of Philadelphia. He’s wise enough to let his characters linger in those spaces and capture quiet moments of emotional immediacy. Coupling his style with a screenplay in which love, despair and compassion serve as jumping off points for larger issues like truth, desire and identity, Coogler crafts a rare boxing movie that (much like Rocky) isn’t about boxing at all.
Like any drama, Creed is all about people. The people that make Creed work are Tessa Thompson, Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone. Thompson has been the underutilized backbone of several indie films in recent years. As experimental R&B singer, Bianca, she provides Creed with a soul outside of the ring and proves a worthy emotional sparrer for Adonis. Meanwhile, Jordan brings a brutish physicality to Adonis, but the wounded soul of an abandoned youth lingers ever below the ferocious exterior. In the film’s final bout, Jordan is charged with selling a line and emotion that finally verbalizes why Adonis fights. The scene could have easily dissolved into silly melodrama, but Jordan owns it and we watch Adonis Creed become the man he knows he is. The touching moment is sealed in the face of the man looking back at him. What to say about Sylvester Stallone here? Tender, restrained, honest and funny … his performance in Creed is everything Stallone’s performances have never been. This is the sort of acting that should be remembered come awards season – I’m as surprised as you.
But Creed is full of surprises. There’s a moment, just before the film’s climactic bout where Rocky gives Adonis a final pep talk. Coogler wisely underplays the drama. Rocking back and forth with balletic fluidity, Rocky speaks softly, conveying every word with the power of a shout. The camera swirls slowly around the men, locked in a moment of brevity before a bloody showdown, and then follows them on an uncut journey to the ring. The moment of cinematic harmony is followed by a ceaseless bout of shear brutality. Such is the life of a fighter. It’s Coogler’s greatest triumph that he finds balance in the human drama and brutal fights. That harmony allows Creed to transcend every Rocky film before it and becomes something all its own … a movie about Adonis Creed.