Working as both the seventh entry into the Rocky franchise and a spinoff, Creed follows Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of boxer Apollo Creed, deceased opponent and friend of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). When Adonis moves to Philadelphia in pursuit of a boxing career, he seeks out the long-retired Rocky to have the former champion train him and together, the two face new challenges in their personal and professional lives.
As the continuation of a franchise that has had plenty of ups, downs, and shifts in quality, Creed was clearly a gamble on the behalf of Stallone and director Ryan Coogler, who cowrote the picture with Aaron Covington. Rocky Balboa was a wonderful way to cap off the series, returning it to its roots and real quality filmmaking. So reopening it and changing the focus of the franchise could have been a cheap rehash of the original, a tone deaf cash grab, or a painful misstep. Instead, Creed is an absolute triumph that works as both a brilliant reinvigoration of the Rocky series and masterful standalone film. Like Adonis’ struggle with the Creed name, the film itself works to stand on its own while still incorporating the strengths and prestige of the franchise.
If you had any doubt as to whether Michael B. Jordan is one of the leading actors of this generation, Creed will knock the truth into you with the same power and tenacity of its lead character. Jordan has palpable charisma that is matched equally by his talent as an actor. He’s not just a star on display who is able to take over one of cinema’s biggest franchises, he wholly embodies Adonis by balancing the character’s raw talent, painful self doubts, and rapturous tenacity. While it would be easy for Jordan to be overshadowed by Stallone in his greatest role, Adonis becomes both relatable and inspiring like Rocky without ever becoming a carbon copy of the classic character.
But it’s not only Jordan whose abilities are on full display here, as Stallone puts on one of his all-time great performances in a return to the character most closely identified with his filmography.
With a career equally filled with beloved and loathed movies, Stallone has had one of the most perplexing filmographies of all time. His career-making roles in Rocky and First Blood can be defined as masterpieces that show him to have the spirit of an auteur and true talent as both a writer and actor. But he’s also been inextricably drawn to big, dumb action movies, both good and bad. General audiences likely think of him as the ‘80s action hero covered in bulging muscles and baby oil, firing massive machine guns while screaming unintelligibly. And while he’s perpetuated that idea through numerous sequels that skew further and further toward that mentality, Stallone’s best works are far removed from that idea.
In Creed, he returns to greatness in a way that will make you reevaluate your ideas of him as an actor. While Stallone did not write or direct this latest entry into the Rocky franchise, the spirit of his films greatly informs its heart and focus. Beyond that, his performance as the aged Italian Stallion is so captivating that you forget about the big actor behind it all. He’s Rocky heart and soul. But he’s not just the brave and funny boxer that people have loved for years, he’s wounded from numerous personal losses and in need of someone to help him find purpose again, which is found in Adonis. Jordan and Stallone have fantastic chemistry, sparking off one another in moments of comedy, action, and soul searching. There’s serious emotional depth plumbed here in their scenes that slowly squeeze your heart more and more. That dynamic alone would make the movie, but it’s only one of the many wonderful aspects of Creed.
Outside of the two leads, stellar performances make up the rest of the film’s surprisingly small scope. As Adonis’ adopted mother and wife to the late Apollo, Phylicia Rashad provides a tender and warm performance as the woman who gave the young boy a chance for the future and really shines in her relatively small role. Tessa Thompson also offers a great compliment to Adonis as Bianca, a singer who forms a relationship with Adonis and challenges him in the ways that he needs. While there may be no character that rivals Apollo Creed’s antagonist role in the original Rocky, Tony Bellew as “Pretty” Ricky Conlan is able to give Adonis the challenge he needs, especially when the two battle in the film’s brutal climax.
Coogler, who had worked with Jordan previously on Fruitvale Station, captures the spirit of the franchise without being indebted to it. You can feel the Rocky spirit in Creed without it ever feeling like a remake. Rather, this is the continuation of a story that has taken an unexpected yet extremely smart turn. Ideas of self worth and the struggle to find meaning in one’s life are deeply embedded in Creed, just like the original Rocky, and that overflowing heart at the center of the film makes it truly powerful. Yes, training montages and a shot at the title are here like so many other sports films, but the ideas are translated as timeless touchstones rather than worn-out clichés.
Most certainly, Creed falls into a certain mold of sports films, with the protagonist fighting to advance in the sport, finding love, nearly losing everything in the film’s nadir, and rallying for a rousing fight in the finale. If you find the format devoid of worth, you won’t discover anything brand new in the film. But Creed is so finely made that it makes the most it possibly can out of the formula until you don’t care about the highs and lows that are surely on their way.
Creed is also an impeccably shot film, with cinematographer Maryse Alberti combining a gritty and realistic viewpoint with artfully crafted framing. There’s a careful balancing act here between the overtly artistic and the realistic, as Alberti’s cinematography often enhances the storytelling on display. Most notably, Creed has some of the most breathtaking tracking shots seen in years, with both action and dialogue given long takes without cuts. The technique is employed from the onset of the film, making viewers more comfortable with the format in order to not distract from the performances on display and becoming part of its language.
But you can’t help but be floored by Creed’s midpoint setpiece, as the young fighter’s first professional bout is done in one single take. While there are surely edits that have been composited to create the single flowing scene, the technical mastery on display here is truly jaw dropping. Coogler and Alberti literally put the audience in the middle of the fight, with both the camera and fighters dancing around the ring, exchanging thundering blows that bust them open and shake the arena. As the damage mounts and the pressure rises, you utterly buy into the real stakes of the fight in ways that few boxing matches have done in films past. The amount of time that was surely invested in the scene is a testament to the commitment made by the filmmakers who brought Creed to the screen.
That same intensity and emotional investment can be seen throughout Creed, informing both training montages and extremely emotional character moments. Together, they exhilarate and bring you closer and closer to the characters. Although the film’s final fight does not quite match its earlier single-take bout, the emotional investment elevates the climax greatly. Specifically, a moment where Adonis finally says why he’s been so determined to fight all his life is not only heart wrenching, but also takes the entire film to the next level.
Few franchises can hope for a rebirth that is as wonderful, thrilling, and inspiring as Creed. The future is bright for Adonis, Rocky, and the team that has lovingly brought them back to the big screen.