Creed is more of a sequel than a proper reboot, but writer-director Ryan Coogler is more than forgiven for not wanting to title his film Rocky VII: Creed. Following the lead of 2006’s succinctly titled Balboa, Creed keeps it simple in more than ways than just its name. It’s very much a by-the-numbers boxing movie, hitting every familiar beat you’d expect from the genre. After Southpaw‘s helpful example earlier this year of just how poorly that formula can be put to use, though, it’s downright miraculous just how effective Creed manages to be while never coloring outside the lines. As far as Stallone franchises go, I’m typically a much bigger Rambo fan (can’t help myself), but who doesn’t love a good underdog story? The pugilist protagonist (played by an all-grown-up The Wire vet Michael B. Jordan) of Creed‘s narrative may go through the motions of successes & failures the audience sees coming from miles away, but the movie is visceral enough in its brutal in-the-ring action & tender enough in its out-the-ring romance & familial strife that only the most jaded of audiences are likely to get through its runtime without once pumping a fist or shedding a tear before the end credits.
The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, a father he never met & a boxing legend within the Rocky universe, Adonis Creed is more a child of the foster & juvenile correctional system than he is of the former Carl Weathers character. With that chip weighing heavily on his shoulder, Adonis attempts to walk the tightrope of earning a name for himself as a self-taught boxer while avoiding living his life in Apollo’s massive shadow. It’s hard to tell exactly how serious he is about ducking association with his father, though, since he adopts an elderly Rocky Balboa as his reluctant trainer & makeshift family. Balboa & Creed’s shared history is assimilated into the story expertly, made to feel real by adopting the format of high-end ESPN & HBO sports documentaries & talking heads forums. While Adonis is trying to balance his own career with his father’s legacy, he also struggles to stay connected with a mother figure who doesn’t want him to fight & falls hopelessly in love with a downstairs neighbor (played by an all-grown-up Veronica Mars vet Tessa Thompson) who records a less avant garde FKA twigs style of pop music in her bedroom in hopes of making a name for herself on her own terms.
There are Inspirational Training Montages galore in Creed, but only two proper bouts, a smart choice that not only allows the film’s familial & romantic bonds room to build, but also helps to establish Adonis as an in-over-his-head underdog. There are some fun, updating-the-franchise touches to the movie, such as a scene where a grandmotherly Sylvester Stallone perplexedly contemplates smart phones & “the cloud”, but the best thing Creed accomplishes is acknowledging the past while living firmly in the present. The two main bouts of the film are feats of pure cinematography & choreography, a brutally physical style of storytelling. There’s impressive imagery to be found elsewhere in the film’s smaller moments as well, such as a shot of Balboa & Adonis boxing duel punching bags in unison & a chilling scene where Adonis fights a projection of his dead father’s image. The sexual tension between Tessa Thompson & Michael B Jordon is also remarkably well played, both in the written dialogue & in the body language of the performances. The worst crime the film commits is occasionally functioning as a video form of Philadelphia tourism, an offense that’s more than excusable given that Balboa is now as much a part of the city’s DNA as cheesesteak & the Liberty Bell.
When Creed‘s production was first announced I’ll admit my initial reaction was a yawn & an eyeroll. Coogler’s film somehow completely turned me around on the idea of a non-Stallone-penned Rocky franchise living on in perpetuity, despite never truly deviating from the format. It’s a great example of how a strict genre film feel new & exciting when played with fully-committed earnestness. If Creed II ever makes it to a theater, I’m pretty much guaranteed to be there, which is a sentiment I didn’t expect to leave the film with before the opening credits.