You can’t make a film like Creed unless you love the Rocky saga, and writer/director Ryan Coogler is clearly a fan. Coogler’s powerful, acclaimed 2013 debut, Fruitvale Station, starred Michael B. Jordan and handled the topic of police brutality with sensitivity and alarming timeliness. His follow-up is not a sell-out Hollywood project or, what I feared, a boxing movie that shoe horns a beloved franchise into a generic story. Creed is truly Rocky 7. Coogler’s unlikely, sensational Rocky sequel is a passion project, made by someone who cares very much about The Italian Stallion. For those unfamiliar with all things Rocky, Paulie, Adrian and Mickey, this stands alone just fine. If you grew up with these movies, then it’s my pleasure to state, with much surprise, that this is one of the best Rocky films.
Jordan stars as Adonis Creed, the son of the late boxer Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers (briefly seen in flashbacks). Apollo’s death and namesake has led his son in unfortunate directions. Adonis’ troubled childhood finds a center when he’s adopted by Apollo’s widow (well played by Phylicia Rashad). Though Creed grows to be a successful businessman and has inherited his father’s wealth, he yearns to become a prize fighter like his father. Suddenly, the retired Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) finds the son of his former friend/nemesis begging to train him.
The heart, grit and urban beauty of John G. Avildsen’s original is intact. I loved the pathos, tenderness and heartbreaking undercurrent of the 2006 Rocky Balboa, but this one’s even better. While the prior entry unwisely filmed the climactic boxing match in an un-cinematic manner, mimicking the look of an HBO Sports event, Coogler applies some stylish touches with the same aggression that Creed gives a punching bag. The first big match is filmed as a one-take, over-the-shoulder set piece, giving the audience a you-are-there feel rare outside of Raging Bull. Rather than an artistic step down from his acclaimed breakout, Coogler’s follow-up is an even more impressive directorial tour de force.
Jordan is very good, though the screenplay doesn’t allow him to explore Creed’s volcanic emotions as much as I would have liked. Stallone once again digs deep and makes the older Balboa a sort of Willy Loman with boxing gloves. His greatest character has, once again, inspired him to avoid movie star posturing and, as in Cop Land, Stallone allows himself to appear unusually vulnerable. As an actor, Stallone is present, unmannered and moving. The moment where Balboa reflects on Adrian’s death practically clobbered my tear ducts.
Tessa Thompson, the best thing about Dear White People, gives soul to the potentially clichéd character of Creed’s love interest. Playing Ricky Conlan, Creed’s opponent, Tony Bellew has a chilling stare that makes him a perfect villain.
Creed earns its formulaic, corny moments because so much of this soars. A few clichéd moments surface, though many potential story mistakes (particularly the potential for shameless melodrama) are wisely avoided. The scenes of Creed training with Rocky at an old gym are riveting (so is the knockout shot where the camera circles around an aggressive training session).
It ends with an opening for another sequel and, I’m surprised to admit, I’d welcome one. The chemistry between Jordan and Stallone is so good and the story has rich emotional territory to explore, I’m down for another round. The story of Creed and Balboa is about the rehabilitation of the soul and everyone here, in front of and behind the camera, is giving this their all. Who would have thought that, next to Rocky II, the best sequel to a movie from 1976 opened in 2015.