It’s been close to forty years since Rocky punched that beef and ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, driving home memorable moment after memorable moment in what would become one of the most well-known sports dramas of all time. After the franchise, arguably, headed downhill with Rocky IV and V, Sylvester Stallone surprised many by giving the series a solid sixth outing with Rocky Balboa. And here we are, ten years later, with a seventh film that not only serves as a beautiful next chapter for a character we’ve come to love since being introduced in 1976, but one that makes for a damn solid drama all of its own.
Our focus does not begin on the Italian Stallion, but on Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of boxer Apollo Creed. Beginning with a look at Adonis as a child, we quickly get an idea of the unstable, angry childhood he experienced up until Mary Anne Creed, Apollo’s widow, took him in. We jump to the present, with Adonis fighting in amateur matches while working at an office job. He is well off, no question about it, but he is not happy. With the memory of the father he never knew hanging over him and his raging desire to be a boxer, Adonis sets out to get the training he needs from a man who knew his father well, from one of boxing’s best.
Director Ryan Coogler made a strong impression with his debut Fruitvale Station, marking him as a filmmaker to look out for. That buzz has more than been earned, with Creed proving to be yet another powerful showcase for Coogler’s skills as director and screenwriter, here co-writing alongside Aaron Covington. Creed is not a film that does anything particularly different or out of the ordinary, it’s a film that takes the elements of what made Rocky so loved and puts it all into a drama that beautifully extends Balboa’s narrative while introducing a new story.
Adonis’ story here is a simple one. He is a young man on the search for his place in the world, specifically in respect to the legacy his father left behind. Looking at it on a simple level, Adonis’ tale can seem frustratingly uncomplicated. He wants to be a great boxer, he is angry at the father who wasn’t there, he gets the trainer to be a great boxer. Yet, Creed does not succumb to ramping up big, severe plot turns to ensure the drama peaks at every corner. Rather, it uses its character-driven story to explore the lives of two men at very different points in their lives, and how their individual yearnings serve to make each man a pillar of support for the other.
While Creed‘s dramatic strength manages to hold up well for most of its running time, there are occasional lapses scattered throughout, with energy levels dipping as the narrative slows to give us more details of our characters’ lives. Exploring the everyday is all well and good, yet it can drag out the plot ever so slightly when there aren’t too many surprises on the horizon. At 133 minutes in length, it’s possible Creed could have used a few extra trims.
Those after a ton of boxing matches may find themselves a little disappointed, but the handful of events we do get in the ring are well worth it. Coogler and director of photography Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) swing that lens in and out of the fight in smooth, long takes that keep the tension high while keeping the details of combat clear. The final bout, as one would hope, is a doozy.
The sport itself is but one element. As Coogler wisely ensures, the meat here is in the relationships, and his cast is more than up to the task of bringing to life the screenplay’s emotional leanings. Jordan is fantastic as Adonis, bringing charm and an overall good nature to a character that is both hard-headed and cocky. And that’s on top of his obvious physical prowess. If Fruitvale Station and Creed are anything to go by, expect to see Jordan have quite the career.
Yet, as good as Jordan is, it’s Stallone who truly shines. The Rocky star puts in one of his best performances, carrying the weight of a life lived and the knowledge that old age is well and truly here. Stallone’s Rocky has evolved, nay, grown, and his touching performance here encompasses the drive and spirit we’ve come to love and respect from the boxer.
Not to be excluded, Tessa Thompson is also very good as Bianca, a singer also striving for more, determined not to let a growing disability crush her spirit. As Adonis’ love interest, Bianca serves the film well, with Thompson’s natural performance and clear chemistry with Johnson helping push their relationship past the tacked-on feel plaguing it in its initial phases.
By the time the wonderful finale comes along, it becomes clear just how much care and respect Coogler has for the franchise and for Rocky himself. He’s clearly the right man for the job, bringing the beloved film series an emotional and spirited new chapter. There’s love for the characters in every frame, add to that an affectionately written screenplay, an impressive Jordan, and a pitch-perfect Stallone, and you’ve got yourself a picture that aims for a win, perseveres, and rolls the credits standing tall.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10