When you get down to it, Creed is kind of a miracle. When it was announced back in 2013, it sounded like pure franchise desperation — Sly Stallone resurrecting his dead horse for one more sad beating, trotting out Rocky Balboa for a “spinoff” movie about the long-lost son of his late rival-turned-pal. What a wonderful surprise, then, to discover that Creed is the best Rocky picture since the 1976 original, and the one that most directly recalls it, in both narrative and tone. And on top of all that, it’s its own great, singular achievement, outside of the considerable iconography.
If you’re not steeped in said iconography, here’s the quick primer: Stallone’s Rocky was a Philly street fighter who hit the big time when he got a Bicentennial-pegged shot to take on heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (loosely inspired by Muhammad Ali). He took the belt from Apollo in Rocky II, then lost and regained it in III with the help of Creed, who became his trainer; Creed went back into the ring in IV to take on a Russian super-fighter, who ended up killing him in the ring as Rocky looked on.
Creed’s protagonist, cleverly named Adonis (and beautifully played by Michael B. Jordan), was born just after his father died, the result of an extramarital affair, and raised by Creed’s widow (Philicia Rashad) after a few, tough years in and out of foster homes and juvenile facilities. He’s got the brains and resources for a respectable career, but what can you do, boxing’s in the blood. So he heads to Philadelphia to seek out his pops’ old pal, in the hopes that Rocky will train him (and, though he’s loathe to say it, help him know something of the father he never met).
This rundown gives some idea of what the movie’s about; what’s important is how the movie’s about it. Creed is the first Rocky film not written by Stallone (who also directed all but two previous entries) — the co-writer/director is Ryan Coogler, reuniting with his Fruitvale Station star. And this isn’t a case of Stallone recruiting a hot young director to breathe new life into his cash cow; Coogler went to Stallone with the idea, calling it his dream project (and, a nice bonus, a real shot at the mainstream hit he deserves).
That affection pulses through the picture — this is a filmmaker who knows these movies, loves these movies, and most importantly, gets what makes them great. Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington’s screenplay is steeped in meticulous backstory, dodging easy “retcons”; in fact, the terrible Rocky IV may be the most important previous entry, from a historical standpoint. (For that matter, Creed gives Apollo’s death far more weight than the movie where it actually happened.) But Coogler remembers our initial attraction to this character: the notion of the underdog, given a shot far beyond his station, and determinedly rising to the occasion.
He also creates a dynamic somewhat akin to that of Rocky and his great love Adrian, via Adonis’ tentative courtship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson, wearing her Lisa Bonet vibe well), his downstairs neighbor. Their scenes, like Rocky and Adrian’s, are marvelously underplayed; there’s an immediate attraction, but both have their guards up, hesitant to let anyone else in, though that resistance eventually crumbles into connection (they both understand how the thing you love can also put you in danger) and, later, playfulness. It’s a fully formed, complicated romance, albeit one that seems to need one more scene towards the end. Nonetheless, that’s the genius of Creed: it’s a film about a fighter and his girl and his mentor, but Coogler is ultimately less interested in the training montages and fight scenes (though they are, respectively, great and great) than he is in the emotional truths at the center of those relationships.
Which brings us to Stallone, who is genuine and connected and just plain wonderful. He comes on with a warm glow and a heavy heart, carrying all the weight of this character he’s been playing for nearly four decades — and of his own persona. These movies have always been as much about Stallone as they are about Rocky, his own life mirroring the character’s (coming up from nowhere in I, dealing with overnight success in II, fighting to prove his continued relevance in Rocky Balboa, etc.); here, just as Rocky must step out of the ring and guide a talented newcomer, so Stallone gingerly hands the franchise over to Coogler. In return, the young filmmaker creates the best role Stallone’s had in years — and makes the kind of divine Rocky movie that was perhaps no longer in the creator’s reach.
Over at ScreenCrush, Matt Singer recently dubbed films like Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens “legacyquels”: a subset of sequels “in which beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors.” But that handoff isn’t just happening onscreen. If we’re being honest, part of what’s exciting about these films is how they come to us not via the people who created them, and often (as evidenced by the likes of Attack of the Clones or Rocky V) lose track of why we love them. Instead, they’re created by filmmakers who love them and were inspired by them, and thus long to honor their stories and legacies. At worst, such endeavors could result in mere fan service (or even fan fiction). At best, they come out like Creed.
Creed is out Wednesday.