On Wednesday, I saw the movie Creed and what can I say? Creed is exactly the film that we were hoping it would be. Not only does it continue the story of Rocky Balboa but it proves that Ryan Coogler is a major directing talent and that Michael B. Jordan is a film star in the making. Ever since Creed was first screened for critics, we’ve been hearing that “Creed is the best Rocky since the first one.” I would go even further to say that Creed is one of the best boxing films to be released since the first Rocky. Though the story may be formulaic, Creed is a film that will take you by surprise. No one — not even the biggest Rocky fans — was expecting it to be this good.
When the movie opens, Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of the legendary boxer Apollo Creed, is just another kid in foster care. His mother has recently died and Apollo was killed in the ring before Adonis was even born. Adonis is adopted by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Fifteen years later, Adonis is working in an office and has just gotten a big promotion but he spends his weekends boxing in cheap venues in Mexico. Eventually, over Mary Anne’s objections, Adonis quits his job and moves to Philadelphia. Adonis wants to box professionally and he wants his father’s greatest opponent and best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to train him.
But Rocky is no longer the man he used to be. He stills owns his restaurant and he still goes out to the cemetery to visit the grave of his wife, Adrian. Since the end of Rocky Balboa, Rocky’s best friend, Paulie, has died and his son has moved to Canada. (Paulie still gets an affectionate shout out when Adonis comes across his old porn stash at Rocky’s house.) Rocky is older, sadder, wiser, and more alone than he has ever been. He is also still haunted by Apollo’s death in the ring. At first, Rocky does not want to train Adonis but eventually, the younger man wins him over. Under Rocky’s tutelage, Adonis wins his first professional fight. When the news gets out that Adonis is Apollo’s son, he is given a chance to fight the reigning world champion, Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).
Watching Creed, it is obvious that Ryan Coogler knows his Rocky films. Creed features call backs to every entry in the series, even the ones that have not received the positive reviews of the first Rocky and Creed. Of course, the entire film is haunted by Apollo’s death at the hands of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. The restaurant and Rocky’s visits to Adrian’s grave were first introduced in Rocky Balboa. When Rocky shows Adonis a picture of him and his son, it is a still photo of Sylvester and Sage Stallone in Rocky V. When Adonis first meets Rocky, he asks him who won the fight that ended Rocky III. Adonis’s fight against Conlan is a call back to Rocky’s fights against Apollo in the first two Rocky films. When Adonis thinks about his father, a clip of Carl Weathers flashes across the screen. Finally, just as Rocky fell in love with Adrian, Adonis falls for a singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson).
Even though Creed is steeped in the history of Rocky, it still manages to establish its own identity. Creed is not just a film about boxing. It is also about a son’s effort to escape the shadow of his famous father and establish his own identity. Michael B. Jordan gives a performance that feels so real and so honest that it constantly takes us by surprise.
Speaking of surprising performances, Sylvester Stallone has never been better. This is not only his best performance in the role of Rocky Balboa but the best performance of his underrated career. It is a performance that is totally devoid of ego and Stallone has never been this vulnerable on screen. If Stallone is not, at the very least, nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, it will be an injustice.
Coogler does a good job of capturing the mean streets of Philadelphia and watching Adonis’s training montage is an inspiring experience. (It would not be a Rocky film without an inspiring training montage.) Coogler also does a good job filming the action inside the ring. The second fight, which is shown in almost one entirely unbroken take, is especially exciting.
Creed is a stunningly effective film. When I saw it, the audience broke out in applause at the film’s final shot. Rocky Balboa’s story may be close to finished but Adonis Creed’s has just begun. I can not wait to see where it goes.