I find it interesting how much Creed lives in the shadows of its predecessors, just like its main subject does. Creed is not trying to be a movie like Rocky, and likewise, Donnie Johnson-Creed (Michael B. Jordan) isn’t trying to be a boxer like Rocky. Creed really isn’t even a movie about Rocky’s rival, Apollo Creed, and it’s just as well because Donnie doesn’t want to be remembered as Apollo Creed’s son. Both the movie and the character are aspiring to leave their own marks on a world where pretty big marks have already been left by key figures from their past. The fact that the movie is trying to do this with Sylvester Stallone reprising the role of Rocky Balboa makes its challenge all the more difficult, but Creed pulls it off with plenty of emotion and style to spare.
You know exactly how Creed is going to play out. Or do you? When the movie begins, you think this is going to be another rags-to-riches story similar to Rocky or The Fighter, and indeed, the opening scenes makes it look like it’s going to play out that way. But Donnie starts his story with the riches, then backtracks to the rags in order to train and become a pro boxer. Why would he sacrifice all of his money and his high-class lifestyle in order to become a fighter? His motivation is not explained until much later, but when it is, it’s nonetheless heartbreaking.
He moves to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky for training, who as you remember from his last film quit boxing and now owns an Italian restaurant. He insists to Donnie that he doesn’t do that anymore, and he doesn’t even want to be involved with fighting from the ringside. Yet, he eventually suspends his discontent and commits to training this new kid for the ring. Why? He never says why in the movie, although I suspect it’s for the same reasons that Micky decided to train an Italian nobody in the original Rocky.
Creed is a hot-blooded sports drama, ripe with all of the adrenaline, action, and emotion that you’d come to expect in boxing movies. Like its main character, it works independently from its inspirations, despite having very deep ties with the rest of the Rocky franchise. When I first heard that this movie was coming out, the one thing I did not want it to be was another Rocky picture. Of course, it’s going to sell itself as a spinoff, but as a film, I did not want it to focus on Rocky, nor did I want it to try and mimic the franchise formula. It’s called Creed. I wanted its emphasis on that character’s story specifically.
Luckily, so did writer-director Ryan Coogler, who approached in telling this story not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Does the movie fall for some of the genre conventions? Of course it does, but the conventions don’t matter as much as the intentions behind them. When Donnie steps into the ring, you don’t want him to win the fight because he’s the main character, but because of all of the hurt and pain he’s gone through up until this point. When he and Rocky talk, you don’t want the conversations to be meaningful because he’s talking to the Italian Stallion, but because the words they’re exchanging are genuine, honest, and real to each other. Coogler succeeds in not only making a powerful fighting drama, but a powerful drama period. He throws quite a few emotional punches in there that I wasn’t expecting.
Of course, for this dynamic to work, Jordan and Stallone need to have the chemistry to make these characters feel real. They have it in spades, and I would even challenge this dynamic to be as likeable as the one between Rocky and Mick in the original. Jordan is electric as Creed, a young rebellious sort who is full of energy, vigor, and passion, not letting any punk young or old telling him what he can or can’t do as a fighter. Do we need to go into Stallone? He’s done the character for years now, and he’s just as great now as he was nearly 40 years ago. Again, he throws a few emotional jabs I wasn’t expecting, but I’ll stop there so that you can experience it for yourself in the theater.
This is simply one of the most motivating films of the year, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. It takes its characters and their emotions seriously. The actors service their roles well and make them believable and real. My only complaint is that this movie has to suffer for being called a “franchise film”, but what do you expect? Let’s face it: the title wouldn’t have been as interesting if it was called Johnson.