Almost ten years after his last bout, Rocky Balboa steps back into the ring for a seventh round in this raw and unexpectedly devastating sequel/spinoff. Far from a desperate comeback aimed at scoring one last payday, Ryan Coogler’s Creed is a smart, sensitive continuation of the Rocky saga that also strikes out into interesting and powerfully emotive new directions.
As the title makes plain, this is not another film about Rocky – in fact, the Italian Stallion doesn’t even enter the fray until the second act. In his stead we focus on Michael B Jordan’s Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky’s one-time rival Apollo Creed.
First seen in 1998 being taken in by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), after a spell in an LA youth prison for scrapping with some street punks, we soon skip ahead to the present day where an adult ‘Donnie’ is stuck at a crossroads. Underwhelmed by his office job, Adonis longs to follow his father’s footsteps into the ring and hops across the border to Mexico each night to compete in underground brawls.
Adonis has his father’s raw talent, but lacks the discipline to make it as a professional. Desperate for training after finding himself shutout of every gym in LA, the young fighter heads to Philadelphia to seek out a certain former champ to be his mentor. With Rocky’s reluctant help, Adonis eventually earns a shot at the title, but does he have what it takes to take on the name of Creed?
Whereas Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been accused of being too referential to its predecessors, Creed strikes the perfect balance between staying true to the franchise’s roots and carving out its own unique path. The plot recycles key emotional beats from the first film – one scene makes poignant use of ‘the Rocky Steps’ – but Coogler dodges any suggestion of predictability by using these call-backs subtly to add weight to the story rather than to simply placate die-hard fans.
So while the plot might sound like a by-the-numbers underdog story, it’s not quite what you expect. On the surface, Adonis has no reason to fight: he’s well educated, comes from a wealthy family and has the kind of opportunities Rocky could only dream of. But rather than telling a typical rags-to-riches tale, Coogler probes deeper into more personal territory. As an illegitimate son who spent his early childhood being bounced around foster homes, Adonis has no sense of belonging and feels unworthy of the Creed name. This sense of rejection fuels his rage and his determination to step out from his father’s shadow, a motivation that goes beyond wealth and class and cuts to the core of what makes a person want to fight.
Essentially taking on the mantle of both Apollo Creed and Rocky himself, Jordan has some pretty roomy gloves to fill as Adonis Johnson, and he confidently rises to the challenge. Unlike his father’s flamboyant showmanship, there’s an edginess and ferocity behind Adonis’ obvious charisma, and Jordan’s ability to combine toughness and kindness is vital to keeping the audience onside when his tempestuous character lashes out at those closest to him.
As commanding as Jordan’s performance is, though, it’s impossible for it not to be overshadowed by Sylvester Stallone’s tender turn as Rocky. It’s fair to say Stallone has never been better as the ultimate underdog than he is here, showing a more weak and vulnerable side than we’re used to seeing from the veteran actor. Once a seemingly indestructible boxer, Creed finds a frail and ailing Rocky seemingly ready to throw in the towel on a life that’s taken everything he ever cared about, until Adonis’ unexpected arrival gives him the kick he needs to pick himself up off the mat one more time.
It’s this poignant characterisation that’s the most important retention from the original films, giving meaning to the bloody brawls when they eventually come.
And, boy, are they bloody. With a surreal shift of location to Everton’s Goodison Park, Adonis’ showdown with stock wrong ‘un “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (real light heavyweight champion Tony Bellew) is one of the most palpably bruising encounters ever committed to film.
Returning to the grimy, small-scale sensibilities of the original Rocky, Coogler shoves the audience straight into the heat of the action with uncomfortably tight close-ups and shots that stretch for entire rounds. We’re given the sensation of being trapped in the ring with these two warriors as they trade crunching blows, feeling every uppercut and hearing every gasped breath with such clarity you’ll be wincing and flinching along with the actors on screen.
It’s all part of an experience that resolves to leave you breathless. Coogler has crafted an exhilarating, sensory and devastatingly uplifting film that harks back to Rocky’s glory days while updating the story for a new generation. Simply put: it’s a total knockout.
Runtime: 133 mins; Genre: Sports Drama; Released: 15 January 2016;
Director: Ryan Coogler; Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington;
Cast: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
Click here to watch a trailer for Creed