Who would think that after nearly 40 years and six previous movies, the Rocky franchise would still have a few punches left in it? Well, it does and more: Creed, the spin-off film that focuses on the son of Rocky Balboa’s former enemy, trainer and friend, Apollo Creed, is a terrific, moving powerhouse of a movie, a rousing boxing drama that’s anchored by two fantastic performances, a thoughtful screenplay, energetic direction and just enough nostalgia and sentimentality to make the movie a genuine crowdpleaser in addition to a detailed character study of two men at opposite ends of their lives but united by bonds they’ve unknowingly shared for years.
Michael B. Jordan emerges fully unscathed from this past summer’s Fantastic Four debacle as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of late world heavyweight champion and boxing legend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, glimpsed briefly in stock footage). When we first meet a young Adonis (Alex Henderson) in an introductory sequence, he appears to be headed nowhere: his biological parents are both dead and he’s in juvenile detention, where he already shows considerable prowess with his fists. But an unexpected visitor – Apollo Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) – provides a way for Adonis to turn his life around when she takes him in.
Years later, Adonis is a bright young man working his way up the corporate ladder in Los Angeles – except for the fact that he sneaks away to Tijuana on weekends for fights in which he’s compiled a 15-0 record. Haunted by his father’s legacy, the restless Adonis quits his job and, unable to get anyone in L.A. to train him, heads to Philadelphia, where he seeks out the long-retired and now elderly Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him and help him launch his professional career.
At first reluctant to do it, haunted himself by guilt over Apollo’s death in the ring (in Rocky IV), Rocky eventually comes around and begins to whip Adonis into shape at his old stomping grounds, Mickey’s Gym. A series of events brings more attention to Adonis – who has been using his mother’s name, Johnson, to avoid comparisons with his father – and when his family ties are eventually revealed, he is given the chance to take a risky shot at the light heavyweight championship of the world against current champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).
The smartest decision by director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), who penned the screenplay with Aaron Covington, is making Creed a character study of Adonis, a man pulled in several different directions who is also dealing with unexpressed grief and rage. Jordan nails his essential goodness and decency, while also showing flashes of the anger that simmers just below the surface. He also conveys quite powerfully how much of his father’s son Adonis really is and how he is also genetically drawn to the same sport as his old man while knowing full well that the “sweet science” is the reason he never got to meet Apollo in the first place. Jordan’s string of superb performances so far – particularly in Chronicle and his first collaboration with Coogler, Fruitvale Station – reaches a moment of transcendence here. His fully developed immersion into Adonis’ skin establishes him as a genuine talent and a charismatic superstar in the making.
The real revelation, however, may be Stallone. This is still, however indirectly, a Rocky movie, and it captures perhaps the best performance of the longtime icon’s career. Too often doing cartoonish work in dreck like The Expendables series, Stallone has always worked harder when stepping into Rocky’s shoes but here he goes above and beyond, delivering a soulful, poignant and at times heartbreaking portrayal of a man who knows that most of his life is behind him and is at peace with that, even as he still struggles with loneliness and grief of his own. The blossoming and ultimately affectionate relationship between Rocky and Adonis is the beating, human heart of Creed, and their dynamic together crackles every time they share the screen.
The rest of the cast sparkles as well, starting with Tessa Thompson as the musician who lives downstairs from Adonis and with whom he begins a sweet new relationship, and including Bellew’s troubled Conlan and some of the great local characters who inhabit the environs of the gyms and the Philly neighborhood that are brought to visceral life in the movie. Every character seems to get a moment, no matter how small, and even the potentially one-note Conlan has a history that makes him more than just the typical barbaric force of nature that Adonis must inevitably confront.
Coogler keeps it all balanced and moving with a sense of confidence and depth. Even though the movie occasionally dips into a bit of schmaltz (especially with a third act development that seems a little tacked on) it quickly regains its footing thanks to the director’s no-nonsense approach and those fantastic character relationships noted earlier. Make no mistake, Creed follows much of the standard boxing movie template, but it almost never feels hackneyed or formulaic thanks to the real investment we have in the people. Coogler also delivers on the action: Adonis’ first pro fight on this side of the border is a showstopper, a four-minute match all done in one whirlwind take that puts the viewer right in the middle of the brawl and is one of the most stunning boxing sequences we’ve seen since the days of Raging Bull.
The callbacks to the earlier Rocky movies are in abundance, but never overshadow the main event. While Rocky Balboa was admired as a dignified send-off of sorts for the Italian Stallion, Creed provides him with an equally elegant coda that is true to the character and bolstered by Stallone’s excellent performance. Yet Creed is also unequivocally Jordan and Coogler’s movie, and the fact that their partnership has made something so alive and inspiring out of a property that seemed to have run its course bodes well for their futures together and separately. As both a movie and a story, Creed is about coming to terms with the past while living in the present and moving ahead into that future. It’s also quite possibly the best Rocky movie since the first one and a contender on its own terms for one of the best movies of 2015.
Creed is out in theaters tomorrow (Wednesday, Nov. 25).