Even Rocky Balboa’s indomitable spirit can’t resist the march of time forever, but in Creed, his boxing legacy lives on through young contender Adonis Johnson (Michael B Jordan). Johnson’s the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the world champion who died fighting the megalithic Russian boxer Ivan Drago back in 1985.
Ill at ease with his legacy yet born with the blood of a boxer in his veins, the hot-headed Adonis (or Don, as he’s known to his friends) coaxes Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, as loveably hangdog as ever) to turn him into a top-rate contender.
It’s nearly a decade since the sixth entry in the Rocky series, and almost 40 since it began in Oscar-winning fashion. Since then, the Italian Stallion has gone from fading Southpaw to millionaire and back again, only pausing to single-handedly end the Cold War along the way. And just as the 20-something Jordan steps into the ring to continue his late father’s legacy, so director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) arrives to breathe new life into an ageing franchise.
Coogler brings an unvarnished, tough edge to Creed, dragging it closer in style to the original 1976 Rocky than its glossier sequels – Rocky IV fans will be disappointed to learn there aren’t any gratuitous robots skulking around here. Fights are shot in long takes that sometimes appear to be unbroken, cinematographer Maryse Alberti’s camera getting right in the ring and circling the opponents; while Coogler doesn’t depict boxing as a crushing blood sport as Scorsese did in Raging Bull, he doesn’t exactly pull his punches, either. One early match leaves Don with a cut over one eye; a clinch later, and the same wound leaves a smear of blood on his opponent’s shoulder blade.
It’s these observant touches, the ones he also brought to the quietly devastating Fruitvale Station, that make Creed feel new. Coogler astutely captures telling little moments – Don’s nervousness before his first big fight, an assistant trainer preparing the swabs and globs of Vaseline outside the ring after a particularly bruising bout, the first kiss between Don and his aloof musician love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). The streak of sentimentality that has always run through the Rocky movies – the rousing music, the triumphant training montages – are all present and correct, but Creed balances them with believable characterisation and moments of real pathos.
Stallone slips effortlessly into his role as trainer, replacing Burgess Meredith’s old shoes as a gruff, sage mentor. We’ve been here before, of course – Balboa made an ill-fated attempt at training up hot-headed wannabe champion Tommy Gunn in the sorely disappointing Rocky V, but Creed’s an altogether different animal. Seeing Stallone cast as the lonely, fading warrior is strange, maybe even a little jarring for those who still remember Rocky in his prime, but Sly seems energised by this chance to pass on the baton, and Creed sees him deliver one of his best performances in decades – perhaps even since Copland, a film that reminded 90s cinemagoers of the strength of his talent.
It’s a generous performance, too, given that it’s Jordan in the title role. He’s believable in every sense as Creed: the next generation; bad-tempered yet good-natured, tough yet emotionally vulnerable. It says a lot about the strength of Jordan’s turn that we aren’t simply waiting for the drama to rush to the next match. And when those fights do come, not least the big one, against a flinty-eyed Liverpudlian pro named Ricky Conlon (played by pro boxer Tony Bellew), we share Don’s sense of fear and expectation.
Composer Ludwig Goransson forms a vital part of Creed’s full-frontal attack on our heart strings, and he brings a pounding, gladiatorial edge to Bill Conti’s old themes. That music communicates a lot of what has made the best Rocky films so popular: it’s unashamedly manipulative, but we can’t help giving into it anyway.
The result is one of the best films in the entire Rocky series; one invested with the punch-the-air entertainment of Rocky III and IV, but also grounded in at least a hint of the street-level realism of the original. Creed may see a new boxer step into the ring, but he brings with him plenty of Rocky’s cast-iron spirit.
Creed is out in UK cinemas on the 15th January.