A rocky restart
Ryan Coogler’s alternately thrilling and deflating Creed marks Sylvester Stallone’s seventh go-round as Philly palooka turned heavyweight champ and Red scourge Rocky Balboa, and it’s easy to see why Stallone can’t quit this character. Despite his checkered background and violent vocation, Rocky stands as the one essentially decent character in Stallone’s entire filmography, alone on a shelf in a gallery of smug jerks and grim authoritarians.
Rocky is Stallone’s soul and legacy, and while the part still fits him like a fingerless glove and pork pie hat, he was wise to take a supporting role here. Creed reinvigorates the franchise by introducing a new lead character and threading him into the Rocky-verse, and Stallone’s onscreen “blessing” is essential to making that transition legitimate. Even better for a franchise that has indulged in a fair amount of racism over the years, the film focuses on a young African-American, and invests him with the same common-man toughness and rough-edged likeability that made Rocky so popular in the first place.
Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Creed (“Don” for short), illegitimate son of Carl Weathers’ Ali-esque champ Apollo Creed, born after Apollo died in the ring in Rocky IV. Sweet and sensitive but boiling with a barely contained rage, Adonis is a study in contradictions—an orphan with an imposing family legacy, a street kid and a rich kid, a white-collar Los Angeles office worker and a secret pugilist, driven by an overprotective extended family to compete in underground fights in Tijuana.
Determined to take control of his destiny and reclaim his name, Adonis relocates to Philadelphia to meet Rocky Balboa and train at Mighty Mick’s Gym. Rocky is reluctant to get back in the fight game (isn’t he always?), but he’s worn down by Adonis’ determination, as well as a lingering guilt about his role in Apollo’s death. Adonis initially struggles but quickly improves through the magic of training montages, landing a fight with a contender that launches him into the national spotlight.
Coogler turned a lot of his heads with his 2013 debut Fruitvale Station, and it’s clear from the opening scenes of a young Adonis brawling in a youth correctional facility that Coogler wants Creed to be more than just a respectful knockoff. The first half of Creed is almost shockingly good, bursting with energy and invention, with a sharp screenplay (Coogler co-wrote with Andrew Covington) that adroitly balances grit, laughs, heart and face-punching.
The film reaches its peak in an astonishing centerpiece fight sequence, as Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti choreograph a seemingly single-shot boxing match viewed mostly from over Adonis’ shoulder. It’s not only the best boxing scene in any Rocky movie, but one of the best boxing scenes in any movie not named Raging Bull. Unfortunately, the film plummets into tired convention from there—Stallone keeps elbowing his way back into the spotlight, and the story foolishly refocuses on Rocky just as we’re learning to love the new kid. Creed proves just good enough to be disappointing.