Making the first entrance in a bout between septologic ‘70s revivals, Creed is not a movie many will be talking about by year’s end, once The Force Awaken starts breaking box office records while actually playing in theatres. Compared to Star Wars, the Rocky franchise is a series of scrappy character dramas – and, yes, that counts the one where Rocky Balboa single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union. Creed hasn’t a hope of beating Disney’s 500lb gorilla in box office receipts or cultural impact, but as far as heart, technique, and performances go, Creed is already 2015’s franchise revival to beat.
This isn’t to say that the film’s magic doesn’t owe a great deal to the nostalgia factor all series this old seemingly must; Creed is as much Rocky VII as it is the start of something new. As the seventh entry in Sylvester Stallone’s career-making, Oscar-winning enterprise, Creed’s moves will be intimately familiar to anyone who has seen a decent sports drama, let alone one featuring the Italian Stallion. Over the head of star Michael B. Jordan – playing Adonis “Donny” Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s rival turned trainer turned fallen comrade, Apollo Creed – hangs the weight of 40 years of sometimes great, sometimes awful, but always memorable sports movie history.
Engaging with that legacy is what makes director Ryan Coogler’s handling of the material (co-scripted with Aaron Covington) such a resounding success, a “have your cake and eat it too” scenario in a movie where carbs should be strictly off-limits. Bounced around between foster care and juvie before finding a home with the wife Apollo betrayed (Phylicia Rashād, wonderful), Donny follows in his father’s pugilist footsteps, while spurning the name of the man who died in the ring before Donny was born. When we see Donny’s first real fight, a barroom brawl for gawking patrons, the anger propelling him keeps his fists loaded, while ensuring he can’t feel anything else.
It’s what Coogler smash cuts to, right after Donny delivers a devastating knockout, that really throws you for a loop. The image is hilarious and unexpected, marking the beginning of a movie-length character study of a kind that earned Rocky Best Picture back in ’77. Jordan and Coogler’s previous collaboration, Fruitvale Station, built a complex and conflicted man out of real, tragic events. Doing the same in the shadow of Stallone’s character and the franchise’s formula is an even greater task, but Donny and Jordan are both up to it.
When Donny decamps from L.A. and seeks out Rocky for tutelage in the ways of pro boxing, the beats that follow are hardly unexpected. There’s a cocky champ looking for a high-profile fight, training sessions get montaged, and a knockdown-drag-out title match awaits everyone at the finish line. Yet it’s remarkable how effectively Coogler finds new fits for old hat sports staples. One long take that follows Donny from locker room to ringside has too many obvious seams to keep you in the moment, but another that captures his first professional fight, start to finish, is an astonishing display of boxing and movie science: the blocking, rhythm, and movements are all bracingly precise.
Whether cutting to emphasize the bloody mess of round-by-round combat or dimming the lights for more literal shadow boxing, Coogler makes Creed’s fights the most visually varied of any “Rocky” film to date. But where Creed truly proves itself an heir to the legacy is during the early action, when the why of Donny’s ambition matters more than the how. Stallone, out of mid-life crisis mode post-Expendables (and looking more like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey than would seem possible), is soulful and wise and funny as he’s ever been. Rocky Balboa lazily congratulated Rock for raging against old age, but Coogler turns Stallone’s years to his advantage, making Balboa’s role more than a mere passing of the torch.
But many of Creed’s best scenes are shared between Jordan and Tessa Thompson as Bianca, the Philly singer with dreams of her own who always puts Donny on the back foot. Their romance is sweet and vulnerable in the same measure, shot by Coogler in a manner that keeps them equal in their passion and self-possession. Though the script can’t make Bianca as important to the second half of the film as she is to the first, Thompson’s candid confidence brings something new to the program that’s a brilliant match for Jordan’s withdrawn sensitivity. “Can I roll with you?” he asks sheepishly when trying to join Bianca at one of her shows. You hope to God she’ll say yes.
Creed is certainly of a familiar pedigree, and of its many, many tear-jerking moments (seriously, this thing is like Brian’s Song on steroids), plenty owe to strategic deployment of revamped Bill Conti tracks, or a particularly emotional, but damn well delivered speech from Stallone. When Donny boxes along with the projected image of Carl Weathers, or stands next to old photos of his absent father (the film, rightly, elides over the ridiculous circumstances of Apollo’s death), the Pavlovian trigger you thought felt only by makers of “Force Awakens Trailer Reaction” videos might kick in. In ten years, praise heaped upon Creed might be blamed for why we’re now watching Jordan fight wrestlers, or Stallone have his 80th birthday cake handed to him by a creepy robot. For the time being, though, Creed and Coogler’s achievement can go undisputed.
Creed is a crowd-pleasing, franchise-extending nostalgia trip of the rarest sort: one that’s not just enjoyable but inspired.