It’s been nearly 40 years since we first met Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), the working-class boxer from Philadelphia who held his own against the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. While Rocky himself may not have taken home the title on his first attempt, the film earned an Academy Award for Best Picture, opening the gates for a long-running series of follow-ups that raked in money at the box office, and cemented the character as one of the most iconic figures in cinematic history.
After six installments, and nearly a decade since the last Rocky film, one might think there are no more stories left to tell about the legendary fighter. Indeed, when word broke in 2013 that a spinoff was in the works, which would see Rocky grooming the son of his former rival for a career in the ring, many dismissed the idea as another attempt by a studio to revive a dormant franchise in hopes of turning out a cheap cash-in.
But Creed, from director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), is anything but a cheap imitation of its predecessors, paying respect to the original films while still blazing its own trail. It’s the story of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of former champion Apollo Creed, whose only ambition is to make a name for himself in the ring without using his father’s fame as a crutch.
Relocating to Philadelphia, Adonis tracks down his father’s old friend and rival, Rocky Balboa, who manages a restaurant named after his late wife and has long since left the boxing world behind. Adonis implores Rocky to train him, and despite his initial hesitance, Rocky sees something special in the kid that he can’t ignore. What starts as a temporary arrangement soon blossoms into a more familial vibe, with each filling a void in the other’s life that neither is willing to acknowledge.
But make no mistake about it, Creed is still very much a sports drama, and it follows the tried-and-true formula of the genre, albeit with a few twists along the way. As a successor to the Rocky films – both literally and spiritually – it should come as no surprise that Adonis must navigate plenty of troubled waters outside the ring, along with his conflicts between the ropes. These moments include a traumatic event in the life of a close friend along with a tempestuous romance with a talented musician (Tessa Thompson), and while these subplots help to add an extra later of depth, some of material feels clunky and out of place.
Although his work here doesn’t quite live up to his stunning debut, Coogler takes what could have been another mediocre rags-to-riches tale and turns it into something far more powerful. There’s plenty of visual flair here, especially a thrilling fight in the second act that is constructed Birdman-style, edited into a single tracking shot. But Coogler also coaxes incredible performances from his cast – particularly Stallone, who turns in some of the most emotional work of his lengthy career.
Much like Adonis Johnson wants to earn the right to bear the name of his famous father, Creed wants to live up to the legacy of the Rocky films, and in that regard both the film and its main character have a lot to prove. I won’t spoil how the latter fares – you’ll have to find out for yourself – but I will say that with a solid script, a talented cast and a great director, Creed is definitely worthy enough to step in the ring and go a few rounds with the champ.
A successor to the Rocky series, both literally and spiritually, that pays homage to its predecessors without feeling like it's just retreading the same material. The cast is great and the script is solid, and this one definitely earns the right to go a few rounds with the champ.