Twenty years ago, my father had a bout with lymphoma. In the following years of recovery, I searched for any means to get closer to him. One of the first things we did together was watch a bunch of his favorite films. Godzilla fights, Bruce Lee stunts, and most importantly, the Rocky saga. Balboa’s underdog tale spoke to him in a way that few films ever did before, and after surviving cancer, it resonated in a different way entirely. Proving to him that not all victories are pretty, but the most fulfilling ones are hard won.
Who would’ve guessed that twenty years later (and forty years since the release of the original Rocky) we’d have a seventh Rocky film. Just like all those years ago where my father’s older sensibilities and my brash youth combined into something special, Creed is the perfect bridge between old and new. Honoring its legacy while creating one all its own, Creed flies to great heights.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Release Date: November 25th, 2015
Rocky started out as a humble film where the titular character was in search of his prime. Themes of resurrection, Jesus imagery, and bouts between mythical legends blew the series into the huge proportions it’s known by today. But just like how the sixth film, Rocky Balboa, saw to end the series, Creed chooses to bring it back down to Earth. Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) is Apollo’s illegitimate son and after years of self-taught boxing and fighting underground in Mexico, he’s ready to take on the sport full time in order to break out of the shadow of his famous father. After heading to Philadelphia, he convinces his father’s old rival and friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to train him through some of the biggest fights of his life.
Creed manages to accomplish something I’ve never seen before. Although it can technically be the start of a whole new set of films, it feels like an appropriate epilogue to Balboa’s saga. Stallone may not have written this film, but lots of the film’s lines and themes fit right in with the other six films. Everything from slight story touches (Balboa knows every person in town, and people still call him “Champ”), to Balboa’s dialogue sounding exactly like how he should (he’s a big dumb lug, but he’s got heart), and to homages folks can miss completely. It’s a film informed by history so fans of the series will absolutely love the callbacks, but newer viewers won’t feel lost without that knowledge. The homage is all in the background (other than two scenes, and only one of those is a major setpiece); stuff you’d pick up if you’re paying attention. Like its major theme of trying to break out and creating a new legacy, Creed isn’t weighed down by the past but is made that much better for acknowledging it a little.
Creed is also a technical marvel. Its running time (two hours and 14 minutes) gave me pause at first because while the Rocky saga was always great, it tended to run long. And while Creed does indeed have some scenes that could be skimmed down, it’s edited kind of perfectly. The story has the time it needs to breathe, and allows the audience to get used to a new perspective of this old world. We have enough story to move the film forward, but there’s still plenty time to develop the characters. The story isn’t perfect as there are a few threads that get lost with an entire secondary group of characters that get shoved aside for an odd feeling title match we’re not really invested in (so Wood Harris is ultimately wasted as a result but I don’t want to talk about it too much because it’ll spoil the film), Phylicia Rashad isn’t really needed, the love interest seems tacked on (but Tessa Thompson is great), and unfortunately we don’t get to the root of why Adonis wants to be a boxer other than the fact that his father once was. But it’s hard to mind because everything works so well. Especially, watching the fights unfold.
The film strives for a realistic take on boxing. Unlike the grandiose nature the sport takes in the later films of the Rocky saga, director Ryan Coogler brings the sport back down to its gritty appeal. Fights are visceral, we’re reminded on a few occasions of the damage boxing can do as Apollo’s death in the ring comes up a few times (and feels real each time), and watching Stallone as a older, weaker Balboa who’s been ravaged by the sport is very compelling. And the matches themselves are some of the most engrossing fights I’ve ever seen in boxing films. One of the weaker aspects of the Rocky saga has always been the boxing matches themselves. There was always care to develop the personalities of the fighters themselves because we’re more likely to get invested in an admittedly goofy fight if we cared about the characters. But in Creed it’s the other way around. While there is attention to fighter detail, it’s more about what happens in the ring. And it’s definitely something I’d like to see more of should there be more films (of which I’d gladly see). It’s a cool way to modernize the typically old fashioned saga. Adonis’ first official match is a huge stand out, and I want to talk about how marvelous it is here but I want you to experience it for yourself. It’s quite a sight.
As mentioned before, Sylvester Stallone may have not written the film this time around, but it definitely feels like it. As the new school props up the legends of old, every scene with Stallone is absolutely enthralling. Stallone wears Balboa’s iconic image like a glove, and it’s like the saga never ended. It’s kind of amazing how he nails each bit of dialogue, humor, and physicality. His arc in the film is fantastic, and it’s quite emotional given our history with the character. If you’ve watched any of the films in the past, expect to cry a little. It’s a staunch reminder of the kind of actor Stallone can be in case you’ve forgotten after watching him in films like The Expendables. Creed subdues his image a bit, but as much as the film tries, it doesn’t dim Balboa completely. Michael B. Jordan turns in quite a performance here, adding the necessary believable edge and charisma, but he’s pretty much outclassed by Stallone in their scenes together. It’s to be expected since Stallone has many years of the role under his belt, but it doesn’t even matter too much since this is a bridge film that serves to pass the torch along. So even this slight negative feels like another positive.
My only major concern is whether or not someone unfamiliar with the Rocky series will be able to enjoy Creed to its full potential. Since I’m far removed from that position, I can only offer a few key points: Creed is an entertaining boxing film in its own right, so you’re likely to get invested without knowing the history, there are a few iconic Rocky images that float around in the pop culture space and they’re paid homage to here so you’ll at least recognize those, and it’s just a fantastic film all around. Creed isn’t a perfect film, but it’s as close to perfect as you can get.
Folks, let me let you in on some behind the scenes stuff for a bit. The first thing I wrote for this site was, in fact, an article on Rocky’s training montage. I started writing community posts here and there before being brought on to the staff full time, eventually working my way up to the guy who gets to review every now and then. So three years later, it’s surreal to take on Creed for my 100th review. Creed hit me hard, folks. I’ve been writing, re-writing, and completely erased a draft to write it all over again just to get it right. It’s a film I liked so much that it was hard to put in words. It’s the best film I’ve seen all year, and there’s a good chance nothing will top it for some time. Whether there are more or whether this is the last Rocky universe thing I’ll ever see, I’m perfectly happy.
Hollywood, if you want to reboot everything, give every old property sequels, spin-off into cinematic universes, take note of Ryan Googler’s Creed. This is how you do it.