The year is 1976. A down-and-out loan shark from Philadelphia steps into the ring with the Heavyweight Champion of the World, all eyes on him for the first time. All his life he’s been called a bum, a waste of potential, a no-good street urchin. Now, after months of training, Rocky Balboa stares into the eyes of his opponent with only one desire in his heart: to go the distance against a fighter who has never been matched.
Creed is not his story. That being said, it’s clear where the film’s inspiration was derived.
Creed, not to be confused with the ‘90s grunge band of the same name, is a recent sports drama from director Ryan Coogler set in the universe of the ever-famous Rocky film franchise.
Starring Michael B. Jordan in the leading role, the film once again takes audiences into the tumultuous world of professional boxing and all the heartfelt personal growth that goes with it. Being part of one of the most iconic film franchises of all time certainly gives Creed big shoes to fill, but it is this reviewer’s pleasure to report that the film succeeds beautifully.
The film opens on Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan), the illegitimate son of deceased former heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed. True to the series’ typical tone, Donnie starts off leading an unfulfilled life, in and out of prison and struggling against a world that seems to only want to beat him down.
Undaunted, he sets off into the world of boxing, eventually seeking tutelage from the one fighter he knows his father respected most: a certain Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Under Rocky’s training, Donnie finally begins to carve out a niche for himself in the boxing world. Finally his lucky break arrives and, like his mentor before him, he is given an opportunity to step into the ring with the champion of the world. Thus, his preparations begin.
Despite being the seventh film in the franchise thus far, it was initially a bit difficult to pin down precisely what tonal direction Creed would push the franchise in, primarily because the series has been tonally inconsistent over the years. Rocky II, for instance, takes a hard-hitting look at life after brief fame, while Rocky IV almost hilariously depicts one man trying to win over the entire Soviet Union in the name of international brotherhood. The series is almost notorious for being all over the place.
Creed, however, thankfully does away with the absurdities of the series’ previous entries and instead stays true to the series’ roots. It pulls the stakes away from the grandiose and instead keeps its struggles very personal.
Much like the classics, the film is a near-perfect underdog story with Jordan’s performance precisely capturing the struggle of a young man trying to claw out a role for himself in the world and transcend what the world expects him to be. Every step of the way, Jordan walks us through exactly what Donnie is thinking and feeling. Not since the first film has the desire to succeed been so palpable.
From all of that, it would be easy to assume that Creed is a by-the-books homage to the classic Rocky film and nothing more. Admittedly, it does invoke the original in a number of ways, with quite a few characters being obvious parallels to ones seen in the past and the second half the film falling back on some of the series’ more iconic, if tired, clichés.
That being said, however, the film does remarkably well at standing on its own and not overly relying on its roots. While Stallone performs in excellent form, clearly thrilled to be back in his iconic role, the film never lets the audience forget that this is no longer his story.
While the messages of overcoming the impossible remain consistent, the film makes sure that audiences don’t forget that the torch is being passed on to Donnie and his generation. Though it does invoke tropes of prior films, it also does a great deal to modernize the franchise, making the characters and settings more real and relatable than they have been for years. In this way, Creed has both kept the underlying spirit of this classic franchise alive, while breathing new, unexpected life into it at the same time.
While perhaps not quite as original as some may have hoped, Creed does one thing very well: It keeps the undying spirit of the Rocky franchise alive. Donnie’s struggle to be somebody and stand on his own is one that is both very familiar and very powerful and truthfully does not need to be changed up.
Even if the film traverses entirely familiar turf (particularly in its ending), the performances of Jordan and Stallone are skilled enough that audiences won’t mind that they have likely seen films like this before. Much like Donnie seeks to do throughout the film, Creed keeps a legendary legacy alive, while punching out a distinctive name of its own.
Overall Rating: 8/10