Creed is the first Rocky Balboa movie Sylvester Stallone didn’t write himself, and it’s also the first film in the series that doesn’t use the character’s name in the title. But 40 years and five uneven sequels later, director Ryan Coogler has pulled off a miracle: He taps into the beautiful simplicity and deep well of emotion of the 1976 original, capturing its essence and spirit while branching out into a new story. Here is the best Rocky movie since Rocky. You could argue it’s even better, except it wouldn’t exist without the first film.
The protagonist this time is Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed, who was Rocky’s arch-enemy before they became best friends in the gaudy but immensely entertaining Rocky III. At the start of the new movie, Adonis quits his job at a financial investment firm and moves out of the mansion he shares with his stepmother (Phylicia Rashad). He wants to become a boxer — he was born to fight, just like his father — so he moves to Philadelphia and tracks down Balboa, who leads a quiet life managing a restaurant named after his late wife Adrian.
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In recent years, Stallone hasn’t so much acted in movies as appear in them, playing a plasticine, action-figure version of himself in The Expendables and Rambo and Grudge Match or attempting to exploit his 1980 box office glory days in Bullet to the Head and Escape Plan. He hadn’t given a genuine performance in so long, there’s an entire generation of moviegoers that has never seen him act — and other, older generations who wondered why he stopped trying.
Creed suggests Stallone simply needed to be inspired, which is why he handed over the reins of his most sacred franchise to the relatively untested Coogler, who has directed only one other movie (Fruitvale Station). Coogler, who also co-wrote Creed, isn’t just a huge Rocky Balboa fan: He also understands what makes the character connect so strongly with audiences (his perpetual underdog status even though he’s revered by millions). Despite his professional accomplishments, Rocky is a tragic figure — he has been pummeled by loss and tragedy in his personal life — but he finds a way to keep going, refusing to succumb to self-pity and depression.
Stallone captures all those facets of his character in Creed, keeping Rocky’s charisma and charm front and center — he’s a genuinely funny, pleasant guy — while reminding you of the pain he harbors inside (all of the important people in Balboa’s life, including his late wife Adrian, his former trainer Mickey and his slovenly brother-in-law Paulie, make cameos of sorts). When Adonis shows up, fresh-faced and eager to train, Rocky isn’t interested. He’s happy living out the rest of his days managing his restaurant and living in a small apartment, a routine but uncomplicated life. But Adonis doesn’t give up, and his exuberance awakens something in Balboa. This brash, good-hearted kid reminds him of his younger self. Cue the Rocky theme song.
Actually, don’t (OK, maybe just a few bars from it). Although Stallone plays a major role in Creed, the movie belongs to Jordan, the young actor who previously collaborated with Coogler in Fruitvale Station. Here, he is handed the baton to one of the most iconic movie franchises of all time, and he runs off with it, rekindling its fire. Adonis isn’t your typical underdog: He’s rich and successful, unlike Rocky was at the start, and he pursues boxing purely out of passion. This is his destiny, and Jordan sells you on the character’s drive. The movie wouldn’t have worked at all without him.
Jordan has a great physicality, the way any actor portraying an athlete must. But he also radiates a warmth and compassion and drive that push Adonis past the trappings of cliche and humanize him. His emotional sincerity extends to the rest of the cast. As a hearing-impaired singer, Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) elevates the requisite love interest into something more vital and memorable; she’s her own sort of warrior, fighting her own personal fight, and her character is strong enough to stand alongside Adonis instead of behind him.
The performances alone would have been enough. But Coogler pushes further, bringing his considerable filmmaking gifts to Creed without ever shining the spotlight on himself. You may or may not notice several complicated long takes in the movie, the most formidable one being an epic, five-minute shot depicting an entire boxing match from start to finish without a single cut. During one training montage, Stallone tries to keep pace with Jordan at the speed bag, can’t keep up and walks out of the frame, smiling; another director would have cut the shot, but Coogler leaves it in. The Rocky hardcore will appreciate the plentiful shout-outs to the previous pictures: Finally, you will find out who won the friendly spar between Rocky and Apollo after the freeze-frame that ended Rocky III (even the MGM logo that opens the movie includes an easter egg; think Eye of the Tiger).
And for the movie’s big signature moments, Coogler surprises you by what he chooses to avoid and what he embraces. At one point in the film, Adonis reprises Rocky’s iconic training run through Philadelphia as passers-by look and root him on, except Coogler reimagines it in a way that is magical, transcendent, elevating. It’s corny, but it’s so well-earned you don’t care. Jordan is carrying nothing less than movie history with him as he jogs, and he makes the burden seem light. The end of the film is so perfect and beautiful, I got a little teary-eyed. But they were happy tears. Creed is formulaic and predictable, but it’s also joyful and wise and tinged with lament, and it lands on the sweet spot between heartfelt art and mainstream entertainment too many Hollywood studios don’t even try to hit.
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Anthony Bellew.
Director: Ryan Coogler.
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 133 minutes. Vulgar language, boxing violence. Playing at area theaters.