Rocky Balboa is back—but not as a boxer. He coaches Adonis Johnson, played by Michael B. Jordan, in Ryan Coogler’s Creed. Adonis is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed—the heavyweight champion from the first few installments of the Rocky series who eventually dies in the ring. Adonis grows up parentless, living in a juvenile correctional facility where he inherits his father’s fighting spirit. He is later rescued by his father’s wife, Mary Anne Creed, who raises him like one of her own in a wealthy enclave of L.A., keeping him far away from the brutality of the ring.
Still, Adonis is unable to resist the allure of boxing and secretly fights in Mexico. He eventually disobeys his adopted mother’s wishes, and leaves for Philadelphia to seek out his father’s former opponent and friend, Rocky (an older but wiser Sylvester Stallone). Adonis convinces Rocky to return to the boxing world as his mentor.
Featuring a protagonist who is the biological son of a main character in the Rocky series, the movie is naturally peppered with references to the previous films. However, Coogler’s fresh extension of the story remains firmly centered on Adonis’s particular struggles. In this way, Creed is both a continuation and spinoff of the Rocky series. Furthermore, Coogler offers a fresh, non-stereotypical example of the sports-drama genre by celebrating a black fighter (Adonis) in urban Philadelphia.
Creed showcases several fights, including two fought outside of the ring. The first is Adonis’s struggle with his identity. He initially eschews his last name, Creed, for Johnson, wishing to carve out a name for himself despite being drawn to the boxing world because of his father’s legacy. Word eventually gets out that Adonis is boxing royalty, making Adonis’s quest in the ring about demonstrating to the world that he is his own man. His bouts are more about reconciling his father’s identity with his own than they are about throwing punches.
The second fight that occurs concurrently with Adonis’s is Rocky’s battle with growing older, and the sickness and loneliness that comes with it. Throughout the movie, we are reminded of Rocky’s age, from lighthearted jokes about the “cloud” that refer to his lack of technological awareness to more serious scenes that depict him as bereft of friends, son, and wife.
Creed succeeds in connecting its audience with its on-screen fighters through these out-of-ring conflicts. Though few of us have ever stepped inside a ring, we have all grappled with identity and the passage of time. Moreover, the movie achieves a balance in emotions with its two main characters. Adonis’s anger and youthful frustration is counterbalanced by Rocky’s stoicism and nostalgic stubbornness. Trainer and protégé, each fighting separate battles, work together to help one another.
The strong quality of the acting makes Creed even more relatable. Michael B. Jordan delivers a solid performance filled with angst and bravado. Furthermore, his on-screen romance with his singer girlfriend, Bianca, is natural. In the moments they spend together, their chemistry radiates off the screen.
By the end of the movie, you will have imagined yourself in the ring. The powerful acting complements the strong storyline. However, at times, the dialogue is awkward. For instance, in one of the first few scenes, Adonis quits his job inexplicably, with few words exchanged. In a later scene, Rocky is too easily persuaded to quit retirement and train Adonis.
The movie also fails fully to develop its female characters. Despite the fact that Adonis’s mother and girlfriend have full backstories, they disappear after the first half of the film. It was disappointing and unconvincing to see both mother and girlfriend return for the final fight, all smiles. Despite having been portrayed as a musician with her own aspirations, Adonis’s girlfriend serves as a mere cheerleader in this final battle.
This is not to say that lovers of boxing movies will be disappointed. Creed has the bloody bouts, the epic training montages, and the intimidating opponents characteristic of the sub-genre. And it manages to pay homage to its predecessors without being cliché. For example, Adonis prepares for the final fight with a standard training montage–except this time all of his workouts utilize hospital equipment. The snippets of humor, too, bring much needed levity and prevent the movie from being overly serious or dramatic.
Creed is the best thing to come from the Rocky franchise since the first movie. Despite a few shortcomings, it is well paced and beautifully shot, resurrecting an old genre and restoring the Rocky name.
Grade: A-. If you are looking for motivation for your New Year’s weight-loss resolution, look no further.