Creed almost follows the schematic of the 1976 Rocky. We have our young boxer, he has a mentor and a woman who becomes his beloved and source of support. We also have the contrivance that finds our young relatively untested boxer in a major fight. There are however some significant differences. For one, our protagonist is black, his girl, Bianca, (Tessa Thompson) isn’t reticent like Adrian and his mentor doesn’t go the tough love route. That said, Creed remains predictable but director Ryan Coogler isn’t trying to be a step ahead of audiences. He just seeks to tell a new character-driven story that resides in the Rocky universe whilst paying homage to a cinematic totem.
We begin with a young orphaned and hot-headed Adonis/Donnie Creed who is visited in a juvenile centre by Apollo Creed’s warm widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Mary Anne adopts the young Donnie, who was a product of an affair Apollo had before his death decades ago in Rocky IV. Mary Anne raises him as her own and gives him a comfortable life but we realise Donnie is also being pulled into the shadow of his legendary father. He resents this, not only because his father may have abandoned him, but because he also loves boxing and wants to make it in the sport on his own merit. He thus goes with his mother’s surname, Johnson, instead of Creed.
We see a grown-up Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) early on fighting in Mexico before returning to his white collar job in Los Angeles 12 hours later. It becomes clear early this won’t be story backed by the motivations that may have driven the blue-collar Rocky Balboa. He isn’t trying to make it out of the hood here. He lives in a mansion, has a great job but on some level, the hood still resides in him. Before Mary Anne adopted him he was scrapping it out on the streets and in group homes. He be a hard guy for sure we don’t doubt that. He still feels the need to prove something though so he quits his job and seeks to take up boxing full time.
Mary Anne isn’t happy with Donnie’s decision and she speaks her mind recalling her days with Apollo who died in the ring. Donnie remains unmoved. He moves away from home to Philadelphia to seek out and persuade the legendary Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. They eventually meet in Rocky’s restaurant but the former champ is however reluctant to be his mentor even after he realises Donnie is Apollo’s son. Of course, Donnie eventually wears him down and Rocky takes on Donnie’s mentorship. This eventually leads to a box office bout with British Mersyside boxing champ Pretty Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).
Like I said earlier, Creed follows a tried schematic but Coogler is telling a different story on this canvas, a story about legacy and ostensibly finding one’s self and moving forward. Coogler’s direction is terrific in that regard. He serves up a number of meticulously crafted and chillingly nostalgic establishing shots as the film progresses. Consider the beautifully shot and lighted sequence in Donnie’s projection room early on. He watches an old fight between Apollo and Rocky and gets up to take Rocky’s position and looks like he is fighting his father.
It speaks to Donnie’s desire to somewhat emulate Rocky but also an emotive battle against the image of his father. It’s a battle he feels he has to win and one that would need Rocky to set him on the right path. We understand Donnie’s drive and his drive somewhat separates this film and his character from the original film and the focus of this franchise. Donnie has a chip on his shoulder and the most important battle he fights here is within; a battle against legacy and to establish identity. Jordan conveys this internal dynamic well in a charismatic and unsurprisingly physical performance.
We continue to see Coogler dissect his characters with more thoughtful shots. We appreciate Rocky and where he is now in two scenes leading up to his decision to eventually mentor Donnie. First, we have the early conversation between Rocky and Donnie. In the backdrop of their encounter is a wall filled with old pictures foremost among them a picture of Rocky and Apollo Creed in the ring. It’s a different type of throwback to the projector scene but they both serve as flashbacks hinting at two characters still living in the past – Rocky particularly.
The second scene, truly moving, sees Rocky visit the graves of Adrian and Paulie. He takes a rose and a bottle of booze for them respectively. Coogler serves us a compelling wide shot of Rocky’s solitary figure sitting in this cemetery. He views himself as a relic, almost as someone desiring more permanence in this graveyard because everyone he’s ever loved resides there now. This point becomes more relevant as the film unfolds. Stallone has a terrific performance for every decade to go with is Razzie fare. This is undoubtedly one, five decades removed from the original Rocky.
It’s almost unfair to try and rate Stallone against other actors because his showing here is amplified by the weight of nostalgia to a compelling force. People have grown up with this character. They get to see him in his most vulnerable and lonely state. They also get to see him find an extra battery for life in Donnie. He is reminded of the first time he stood up to be counted simply because he fought the odds. Another of such battles await him. Stallone has a tremendous aura here which matches up well with Jordan’s physicality. He basically embodies loss and Coogler handles him with earnestness and empathy.
The triumvirate of strong performances is completed by Tessa Thompson as Bianca, a hearing-impaired singer and composer of weird eclectic electro music. Yes, she shows up to be Adrian 2K16 in a romance subplot with Donnie but she retains some agency despite the expected to devotion to her man. She is quite the enigma to observe and we learn she wants to make as much music as possible before her hearing loss becomes permanent as it is progressive. She also matches up to Donnie with the way she fixates him with her story in the beautifully lit diner or tears into him with feisty intensity when he oversteps.
This film undoubtedly panders and becomes twice the film it is to fans of Rocky lore. Coogler handles this film with respect and even love for this world without sacrificing some measure of originality. We see hints of a past albeit on a road to something ahead. It’s a new score but we hear “Gonna Fly Now” brooding beneath. There is the mandatory training montage with a terrific sequence showing Donnie in all his splendor jogging on the street surrounded by kids on motorcycles but we also note Rocky, in the periphery of this moment, watching from a window above. I cannot emphasize enough how moving and weighty Coogler’s shots are.
Every other shot here is ripe for dissection but let’s spare a thought to our director’s overall direction and buoyant pacing. This film has the best shot boxing fight sequences by a mile. Coogler employs some riveting unbroken takes and hones around his boxers as they dance around the ring. Creed is its own movie despite the earnest homage to Rocky. Those who are already invested in Stallone and Rocky will reap more from this film emotionally but it won’t alienate the uninitiated in what is an undoubtedly a rich cinematic experience.