Going into Creed, I was worried that I would have trouble viewing it through a truly objective eye. All my life, my dad has been a die-hard fan of the Rocky series. For as long as I can remember, he has never passed up an opportunity to watch an all day Rocky marathon on cable and has happily watched every single movie over and over again (except for Rocky V which even he admits pretty much sucked). I never quite shared my dad’s enthusiasm, since like countless other kids, I considered everything my parents enjoyed to be lame on principle. Of course, as an adult I’m now more aware of and respect the cultural impact of the series (or at least the first movie) but there’s still the snarky teenager in me that likes to poke fun at my dad for still enjoying them as much as he did when I was a kid. I was concerned I’d end up doing the same to Creed but luckily those concerns proved to be unfounded since it ended up being an excellent film for the series and in it’s own right.
In 1998, 13 year-old Adonis “Donnie” Johnson has spent a good part of his childhood in and out of juvenile detention centers until Apollo Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) reveals to him that he was a product of an extra-marital between Apollo and his recently deceased mother and offers to take him in and raise him as her own.
Cut to present day and an adult Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) has a good job in California but also secretly moonlights as a boxer in Mexico. Unable to resist his dreams of following in his father’s footsteps any longer, he quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to become a boxer full time and convinces his father’s old friend/rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to take him under his wing. Along the way he also sparks up a romance with his musician neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who’s slowly going deaf. Eventually, Donnie gets his shot at the title as he goes up against the light heavyweight division champion Ricky Conlin (Tony Bellew).
Jordan gives a top notch performance as Donnie, who goes back and forth between wanting to live up to his father’s legacy and creating one of his own. Stallone also does a surprisingly good job playing Rocky Balboa again, who while now in a supporting role puts the kind of emotion and subtlety into his performance that we haven’t seen from him since at least the early 80s (or possibly the first Rocky).
Another thing that probably warrants mentioning is the boxing itself. A recent College Humor video rightfully pointed out that at a certain point in the series, the fighting had gotten less realistic, which is one of the many things that has caused the 80s sequels to be ridiculed over the years. With Creed though, the fighting is much improved from a technical standpoint. The fighting feels much more like an actual boxing match and you feel every punch that lands whether it be from Donnie or the guy he’s fighting against.
The real highlight comes not from the title bout but with Donnie’s first fight under Rocky’s tutelage. If the whole fight wasn’t done in one continuous take, it certainly looked like it and either way it was an impressively shot and directed scene from co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and cinematographer Maryse Alberti.
What’s also notable about Creed is that this is the first film in the series that was neither written or directed by Stallone, a fact that becomes especially evident as the movie goes on. Past Rocky sequels would play up Rocky’s legacy but Creed focuses more on Apollo’s instead to the point that Rocky even claims that Apollo won their infamous sparring match at the end of Rocky III. The focus away from Rocky is probably for the best since even Stallone has stated that he feels Rocky’s story ended with Rocky Balboa which is part of why he was initially hesitant to reprise his role.
Creed is the best of both worlds since it’s made with great love and respect to the previous movies while at the same time proving itself to be an excellent film all on it’s own. The fight scenes are expertly shot and the acting is good across the board, including from Stallone surprisingly. Creed probably won’t hold up quite as well as the first Rocky but then again, few films are able to accomplish that.