No one was asking for another Rocky movie. But Ryan Coogler made one anyway, and it jabs right at the heart.
You see this guy staring back at you? That’s your toughest opponent. I believe that’s true in the ring, and I believe that’s true in life.
You can tell Creed is going to be special almost from the opening shot, which begins on an empty hallway at a juvenile detention center; a group of young boys come through the door and get put against the wall when the sounds of fighting break out. Then the camera swiftly glides down the hallway and around a corner, no cuts, into the crowded common area of the center — where our hero, Adonis Johnson, is brawling. Right away, director Ryan Coogler establishes his ability to stage a scene, and it only gets better from there.
Here Coogler reunites with his muse, Michael B. Jordan, who was supposed to be a much bigger star by now. (Thanks for nothing, Fantastic Four.) They previously collaborated on the remarkable Fruitvale Station, which never got the awards traction it deserved and feels more prescient with every passing day. There, Jordan played a young man with a checkered past trying to make good, until the infamous police shooting that cut his life short. The performances and direction were highly naturalistic, and Coogler brings that same feel to their follow-up, Creed, though the story is more mythic in scale.
So this is only his second feature, but this case differs from the stories of directors Colin Trevorrow and Josh Trank in a couple major ways. First, Creed is a much “smaller” (really, mid-budget) film, with the lower expectations that come with it. The Rocky franchise has died and resurrected plenty of times, but the response to the 2006’s Rocky Balboa (the sixth) was lukewarm enough for many to believe it had finally run out of gas. The Italian Stallion had been circling the ring for thirty years, and Sylvester Stallone wanted to retire his career-defining character with dignity (while he went off to make crowd-pleasing geriatric shoot-em-ups).
Instead, even before Coogler made Fruitvale Station, he pitched Stallone his own idea: a new film centering on the son of Apollo Creed, Stallone’s nemesis-turned-trainer and dear friend. So this isn’t the case of a green director lucking into a mega-franchise as a hired gun; this is Coogler’s story, and one he’s wanted to tell for a while. Eventually, as he has recounted in interviews, he wore Stallone down, and got him to buy in to the idea — not just for Adonis Creed, but for ol’ Rocky himself. Real life gets mirrored in the early scenes of the film, as Adonis (or Donny, or “Hollywood,” as he gets nicknamed) works hard to persuade Balboa to take him on and train him, when Rocky is content to run his restaurant and live out the rest of his days in quiet. But in bringing both Stallone and his character out of the mothballs, something magical happens.
While Creed’s plot follows the trajectory of its predecessors, it’s not merely a retread — it’s crackling with life in every frame. A lot of that is owed to Coogler’s masterful direction: he frames sequences both in and out of the ring with a craftsman’s eye; his compositions have real depth (mise en scène, for you fellow film nerds), and the camerawork itself is nimble but never showy. After the film’s first scene Coogler gives us several other “oners,” the highlight being Adonis’s first real fight: it begins as a Raging Bull homage, coming down the hallway and into the ring, but then it keeps going, around and around, following the action, showing the cuts and bruises appear on the fighters’ faces in real time. The choreography alone took weeks, and filming it required over a dozen takes. It’s breathtaking to watch it unfold, and there are other long takes sprinkled throughout the film that may be less elaborate, but no less effective.
The screenplay is also credited to Coogler, along with Aaron Covington, and its depth and nuance runs circles around every preceding Rocky film save (maybe) the original. Adonis is afraid of the weight that comes with taking his father’s name; he may be blooming into a legendary boxer in his own right, but in his heart he’s still the self-conscious little boy that his adopted mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, playing Apollo Creed’s widow), plucked out of juvie. He’s been moved from group home to group home for years, and doesn’t believe there’s anyone out there who cares for him until she come along. Then we see his fists start to unclench, and it’s a microcosm of his story for the rest of the film: opening up, learning to trust, forgiving the father he never knew, and embracing the legacy of Creed while also being his own man. Like in the original Rocky, whether or not Adonis actually wins the final fight is secondary to his own personal growth.
As Adonis, Michael B. Jordan gives an open, soulful performance; his physical presence is awesome, but more than that it’s easy to get invested in him: we cheer his successes, empathize with his hurts, and relate to his mistakes. After moving to Philadelphia, he meets a singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson, fantastic), and as they hit it off, you can’t help but brace for the scene where she’ll “make him choose” between her and boxing. But Creed is more mature than that, and treats Bianca’s struggles with equal weight — just like a boxer entering his prime, a progressive hearing disorder gives Bianca her own ticking clock before she can no longer do what she loves. “Time is undefeated,” as Rocky tells Adonis early on. And he would know.
It’s Stallone’s Rocky that is the heart of the film, and the 69-year-old has never been better on screen. Ever. There’s not a single mis-step in his performance, no line reading that doesn’t ache with regret. This is a man who has distanced himself from his past because it’s too painful to remember it; his wife is gone, Paulie and Apollo are gone, and he frequents the former’s graveside so often he leaves a folding chair stashed in a tree for convenience. Stallone is raw, but also warm, as he begins to see Adonis’s future as a way to atone for his own mistakes and leave something behind. Most powerfully, Adonis helps Rocky to fight a battle of his own. Their many scenes together — even the required training montages — are electrifying, and the speech Rocky gives his “nephew” before the final fight is making men openly weep in the theater (to read the reports). I can’t overstate how good Stallone is. I can’t even describe it. The awards hype is real.
From the dynamic cinematography of Maryse Alberti, to the stirring score of Ludwig Göransson (which feels very much like a throwback in how liberally it uses the themes and structure of the original), to how gracefully it integrates the slang and 2015 ideals of its young black cast, Creed is a knockout. It’s no mere nostalgia trip, either, for all its loving nods to what came before. When Adonis goes charging down Front Street, Meek Mill on the soundtrack as ATVs pirouette around him, the message is clear: Creed stands on the shoulders of a legend, but this is something new. So get hyped.