It’s been nearly ten years since Rocky Balboa last graced the silver screen. Most assumed that film, Rocky Balboa, would be Stallone’s last in the series, as even then the concept of him competing in the ring felt more than a little ridiculous when considering his age. While that film introduced the idea of a second generation in the form of Milo Ventimiglia’s Robert, young director on the rise Ryan Coogler’s idea for resurrecting the boxing franchise lies in the lineage of Apollo Creed, with his Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan on board to play his youngest son. Could this be the punch in the arm the franchise needs to once again overcome the odds and lift the title?
Adonis (Donnie to his friends) Johnson is a troubled youth when Creed begins, finding himself in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention until Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) visits him to tell him he is the son of her late husband Apollo Creed (the product of an extramarital affair), and she would like to take him into her home. The film jumps forward a few years to the now older Adonis working a successful job in a financial firm in Los Angeles only to spend his nights and weekends taking boxing fights in Tijuana for extra money and the thrill of following in his father’s famous footsteps. He wants to make his own way in the world, still using the surname Johnson, and decides to quit his job and move to Philadelphia to try and become a professional fighter. In Philly he seeks out Creed’s old rival and best friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who reluctantly agrees to train him when it becomes clear Donnie will fight with or without his help.
For anyone who has seen a Rocky film in the past (or any film that could conceivably fall into the “inspirational sports movie” genre, really), next to nothing about the plot movements of Creed should come as a surprise. Rags to riches to rags to riches, the underdog getting a huge fight against the champ irrationally early in his boxing career, the mentor/trainer suffering from an illness just as the big fight approaches, the wife/girlfriend torn between a desire to protect her man and his desires to fight, it’s all there in Creed. So with a film like this, it all ends up coming down to execution. The execution of the cast to sell the genuine emotions of the story, as well as the execution of the director and his/her crew to sell the suspense and excitement of whatever sport is in the spotlight. It’s about the emotion of it all washing over the audience and overcoming that nagging sense of familiarity of a story that has been seen dozens of times before.
On the cast front, Coogler’s four principals do a more than adequate job, with Jordan continuing his meteoric ascent to the elite actors of Hollywood. He is the perfect man on which to hang a film like this, that sparkle in the eye, buckets of charisma flowing out of every pore, the sense of undeniable authenticity in everything he does. Fruitvale Station certainly showed he could carry a film, and Creed proves that was no fluke. Stallone takes his mumbly meatheat with a heart of gold and transitions him from lead into the Mickey role with grace; he has been garnering some late-in-the-game awards buzz for his work here, and it would be difficult to argue. Rocky is a stereotype of the highest degree, an amalgamation of every trainer/coach/mentor these films have ever seen, but Stallone imbues him with the soulful weariness of a man who has lived a long, difficult life that provides the depth of character to rise above the archetype. The women of the film, Rashad and Tessa Thompson (who plays Donnie’s singer girlfriend) do not have nearly as much to do as their male counterparts, but both are equal to the task. They will not be the performances that are remembered in the long run, but they provide the mortar, the connective tissue that helps the entire film stand on its own two feet.
Coogler is also equal to the task technically, which could have been considered a legitimate question after the quiet, reserved look of his only other feature Fruitvale Station. The two showcase fights are shot in markedly different styles (the first plays out as a single long take, the second a flurry of cuts), both of them undeniably visually engaging and thankfully varied. Coogler also injects some nice visual touches, like a series of Tale of the Tape style infographics that pop up next to each fighter as they first appear on screen. These flourishes from time to time, as well as composer Ludwig Goransson’s melding the classical Rocky themes with more contemporary sounds, make Creed a wonderful bridge between the past and the present, a way to keep the spirit of the Rocky franchise alive and well for a new generation of film fans, paying deference where it is needed but not overemphasizing the old over the new. This is the sort of film required to please a litany of varied masters, and Coogler has managed to do just that. It is a huge step up both in complexity and prestige, and he handles it without breaking a sweat.
There is a bit of a glass ceiling in place when it comes to inspirational sports films. Even the best of the genre can arguably only be so great. It is possible that, from time to time, a singular film can break through that glass ceiling; one could argue Rocky did just that in 1976. Creed does not quite break through that ceiling. It’s a very good film with very few flaws, and while it would be incredibly difficult to not be taken over by the emotion of the ending, it does not offer quite enough to distance itself from the pack. Make no mistake, this is still one of the better examples of an inspirational sports film in recent years, up there with entrants like Miracle and Warrior, and there is not much fault to find here. But there is an undeniable sense of diminishing returns that is always at play in films like this, and try as it might, Creed does not quite have the escape velocity to break orbit.