Rocky Balboa is one of the great champions of the big screen. Not a hero, a champion – his story is one of overcoming adversity and challenging himself endlessly before ultimately paying the price. The original Rocky resonates so much because it’s such a no-frills adaptation of that classic tale of overcoming one’s own personal circumstances to become something greater. And even though the Rocky films became somewhat lost in themselves over their six instalment saga, that first film and its sequel are quintessential pick-me-ups on the subject of personal struggle. With Creed, director Ryan Coogler was tasked with renewing Rocky again without sacrificing what made the original so approachable and, hopefully, not making too much of a rehash so common in reboot culture. The result is, much like Rocky Balboa himself, a champion against all the odds.
The first good decision the film makes is to side-step the story of Rocky himself and peer into the history of those around him. Rather than try and move under the weight of a character already so storied, we’re given his rival’s name – the titular Creed – to focus on as we meet the estranged son of Apollo Creed, Adonis Creed. The second good choice the film makes is to have Adonis choose to fight – successful in underground boxing, he decides to quit his successful office job in favour of trying to make it big time, much to the chagrin of his adopted mother.
Though born of a desire to cash in on nostalgia, Creed is a movie written to be anything but. Coogler‘s screenplay is one steeped in self-awareness of what it is and how it came to be and is a stoic refusal to suffer being half-assed. Michael B. Jordan‘s Adonis, one of the finest performances in recent memory, is a captivating boiling pot of longing. He’s got a strong legacy but he never knew his father, and yet the life his father led calls to him so he can prove himself. Adonis wrestles with being a Creed and with the idea of succeeding at the same game as his dad while still becoming his own man. By the time he’s entering the ring for his big fight, it’s almost like Adonis is fighting his father for the real first name attached to the movie’s title.
These motivations aren’t lost on his trainer either. A returning Sylvester Stallone as an older Balboa guides Adonis through becoming both a champion and his own man. Some of the film’s greatest moments are between Rocky and Adonis as they hash out Rocky outliving everyone he ever loved and Adonis having this incredible fresh opportunity at his doorstep. How the two are brought to entering a boxing ring couldn’t be more different, but the challenges remain the same; as Rocky himself puts it while Adonis looks in the mirror, the greatest enemy is yourself. And when you get right down to it, what makes Creed such an enjoyable experience is that it’s a sequel that dares to look at the Rocky films and say “I’m you, but I’m also myself.”
Coogler and Aaron Covington‘s screenplay goes to great lengths to satisfy this conclusion too. Starring opposite Jordan is Tessa Thompson as neighbour and love interest Bianca. Bianca and Adonis’ relationship is totally representative of how well the film works as a whole. Their romance is built on mutual success and understanding of the finite nature of opportunity. Thankfully, Creed ditches the now OTT sentimentality of wailing “ADRIAN” that typifies the ending of Rocky, but I was still enthralled at Bianca’s reactions to Adonis’ rise and fall. During his big fight, Bianca provides the emotional longing to cheer for Adonis as he lands another left-hook before falling to a sharp jab, with no less credit going to Maryse Alberti‘s cinematography. The entire film could just as easily be following Bianca’s ascension to musical stardom and the satisfaction of them embracing as she courts a huge audience would be just as satisfactory, such is how well she, and they, are constructed.
For how good it is, Creed will likely not dethrone Rocky as the prize fighter of sports dramas. Rocky is too seeped into the genome of telling underdog stories. But it doesn’t need to and, more importantly, doesn’t want to. It merely wants to be as good, to stand on the same plateau. And despite proving there’s still another round in Stallone‘s performance as the champ Balboa, it’s Adonis that’s truly the new champion by the end of this film.
Creed is in cinemas now.