Early on in Creed, a young Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) shadowboxes in front of film footage of the original, climactic Rocky Balboa–Apollo Creed fight. One of the more interesting aspects of this rousing, charming, and altogether winning “sequel” is that it works on two levels: as both one more (and presumably final) entry in the Rocky franchise, and as a commentary on the whole Rocky entertainment phenomenon.
Imagine a young African American watching the original Rockys (on TV, VHS, or DVD) and laughing at the prospect of some “Italian Stallion”—long after Italians were relevant to heavyweight boxing—humiliate, and finally defeat, Apollo Creed (played by a real-life pro athlete Carl Weathers), and saying to himself that he was going to flip the scenario and avenge the great ex-champ—yet do it with great love and affection for “Unc” Rocky.
Needless to say, I loved this film. I loved it about as much, if not more, as any film I’ve see in the past ten or fifteen years.
We meet the young Adonis in “juvie,” fighting, of course. Both his birth parents are dead, and he’s been kicking around foster homes for years. It’s not until Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) takes the young Adonis in that he learns that his father, whom he had never met, was the late great heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed. Seems Apollo had an affair and Adonis was the result. Mary Anne nevertheless opens her opulent Los Angeles home to him, determined to see that Apollo’s blood is raised far from the mean streets that are too often the scene of the shedding of same.
But Adonis has other plans. Years of soft living and a cushy white-collar job bore him. He tells Mary Anne that he has to fight, to her horror. The last thing she wanted for this young man was the kind of life that Apollo had led—that finally got him killed.
But a warrior’s got to war. And so Adonis takes off for Philly, to meet his late father’s best friend and one-time “trainer,” Rocky Balboa. Rocky is stunned to learn that Apollo had a son, never mind that he wants him to pick up where he left off with Apollo. It’s a hard sell, but Rocky finally relents, whether out of curiosity, boredom, or some send of guilt over the death of Apollo at the hands of Ivan Drago (“that fight should have been stopped—I should have stopped it”) is unclear. But Adonis is quickly put through his paces, much as Mickey put the young Balboa through his when he walked through those gym doors forty years earlier. The bond that Adonis feels for the ex-pug grows, as Rocky becomes both father-figure and mentor.
Director and co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) sprinkles musical and visual motifs from the original Rocky films throughout Creed. From Adonis chasing a chicken to push his reflexes, to one-arm pushups, to the love story. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is a singer at the beginning of her career. Unlike Adrian, however, she is not some mousy, pet-shop clerk destined to be little more than a forgotten “spinster” (if her brother Paulie is any kind of prophet), but instead a vibrant and lovely artist who nevertheless carries the burden of another kind of fate: she is suffering from progressive hearing loss, and knows that one day she will be unable to hear her own music. She is someone who cannot afford to worry about the future, who must seize the day, as that’s all she has.
Johnson never tells Bianca that his real name is Creed: he is still trying to elude the shadow of his legendary father, determined to create his own legacy based on his own merits. It’s not until Adonis wins his first bout with Rocky in his corner that the entire world learns his true identity. Once this is out, the light-heavyweight champion of the world, a Brit named Conlan who’s headed to prison after one more defense of his title, chases a fat payday against the son of the great Creed.
Rocky sees this for the money-grab that it is, and counsels Adonis against taking the offer. After all, no one gives Adonis a chance in the world of winning (sound familiar?). It’s a freak show made possible by an accident of birth. But Adonis is slowly coming to terms with his own history, and is tenacious, and convinces Rocky to pursue the championship bout. The film then gears up for the grand finale.
Until Rocky passes out while working with Adonis in the ring. Turns out the old prizefighter has one last fight of his own. He’s pushing 70, looking it, feeling it, and the end is certainly within his sights. Not that he’s afraid of dying. After losing Adrian, death is rest. But there’s still more work to do, as he told the dying Mickey. Now Rocky and Adonis must now lean on each other as they struggle to push through days far tougher than either could have imagined.
The final question is, which Rocky will Creed takes as its template? One, in which the underdog loses the big fight but goes the distance and wins the love of his girl? Two, in which the underdog wins the championship? Three, in which the champ loses his beloved trainer and becomes rattled by a ferocious opponent? Four, in which the champ loses his best friend and former nemesis—and should have thrown in the towel (we’ll forget “and wins the Cold War”)? You’ll have to go see for yourself.
Jordan does a convincing job of portraying ambition and vulnerability, buried anger and the capacity for hope. Thompson, who bears a striking resemblance to Lisa Bonet, undoubtedly has a career ahead of her that should prove more durable than that of the ex-Cosby kid.
But it is Stallone who makes this thing click. My goodness what a glorious final bow for this character. Just when you thought there was nothing left to say about Rocky Balboa, that Stallone had nothing left to say as Rocky Balboa, Coogler digs deep into the mythos and writes yet another chapter to the story, with Stallone coming through like a champ to deliver a textured, melancholy, yet loving performance that is well worth an Oscar nomination.
Surrounded by Rocky memorabilia—posters and pictures and film footage of the old films—we’re never allowed to forget how long this character has been with us and the effect he has had on pop culture. In one scene, Adonis is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Why do I box? Because I can’t sing or dance”—something you’d expect to be able to buy in any Philly tourist trap today. In fact we see tourists having their picture taken with the Rocky statue now embedded somewhere on the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, home to those iconic steps. Yet I was surprised by how often this film surprised me. Coogler and co-screenwriter Aaron Covington, having watched the whole Rocky business, as a business, unfold over the years like the rest of us, have now purchased their very own franchise, Rocky character and all. Awash in iconic pop-culture imagery, they have entered the picture themselves and, deity-like, both comment on and inform the text.
Yet how could Coogler craft yet another pre-fight, adrenaline-pumping training run down Philly streets that didn’t look like the ones so familiar to us already? Damn if he didn’t pull it off, with a joyously original visual touch.
Creed is formulaic as hell. (One otherwise positive review called it “corny“; yet another, “far-fetched.”) But Coogler knew exactly what elements to plug into the formula to craft one helluva stirring bit of Hollywood entertainment. Manipulative? Of course—but effective, as I found myself literally on the edge of my seat as the final round of the Big Fight commenced, with Rocky conveying tips Apollo’s manager would have given the champion to take down his challenger back in 1976!
Creed is a film about finding family finally, and in the last place you’d think (“He’s your uncle?” Bianca asks Adonis. “He’s white”). It’s about owning and forgiving the past, never taking a single day for granted, seeing yourself as the only enemy you need worry over, and never giving up in a righteous fight. Just like Adonis Johnson, Creed works hard to earn its name, to earn its place in the Rocky series.
And it succeeds beautifully. It may not exceed the original, if for no other reason than it needed the original for it’s own life, as any son does his father.
But it is definitely a member of the family.