I’ve written and re-written the opening sentence to this review about 25 times. How do I declare my love for this film without throwing all critical credibility out the window? Clearly, I am not alone in calling it one of the year’s best films, as it’s sitting happily at a 96% over at Rotten Tomatoes, but here’s where my hesitation comes from: not only do I believe Creed to be the best sequel to the 1977 Best Picture Winner … it’s also the best Rocky movie PERIOD.
Yup, I said it. Creed is better than Rocky. Let that sink in: Creed is better than Rocky. I don’t know how it’s possible for the 7th film in a series to best the original (although I guess Furious 7 sorta did that), but it happened. And it happened to a movie all about what it takes to step out from under the shadow of greatness. Could it be more poetic? Of course I don’t expect anyone to agree that Creed is the superior film, but to deny that it successfully forges its own path while being simultaneously reverent to its predecessors is to be wantonly contrarian. Creed is big, bold, feel-good entertainment with a heart as big as its muscles, and much like Rocky, it has the hungry energy of an independent film, with the sentiment and confidence of the finest Hollywood tradition. It is explosive entertainment with an achingly human soul, and as I write these words, almost 24 hours after leaving the theater, all I can think about is how much I simply MUST go see it again.
Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Don Johnson! Ha!) is the illegitimate son of deceased heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Borne from an extramarital affair, Adonis spent his adolescent years in a variety of foster care facilities. He’s got a chip on his shoulder, and is constantly getting into fights. One day, he is visited by Mary Anne Creed, the former wife of Apollo, who agrees to take young Adonis into her care. From here, he lives a life of comparative privilege, maturing into a successful young adult. Yet despite his new, more delicate upbringing, through his veins pumps the blood of a fighter, and Donny often sneaks off to Mexico to partake in underground boxing matches. He’s undefeated. He’s hungry. But due to being the well-off progeny of Apollo Creed, no one wants to manage him. Adonis quits his job and sets off to Philadelphia to convince the one and only Rocky Balboa to help him become the fighter he feels destined to be.
I’d hate to go too deep into the plot, but it mirrors Rocky – not copies, mirrors – by reworking the template to fit the modern day, as well as to tweak the character motivations. While Rocky initially stepped in the ring to prove he wasn’t a nobody, Adonis wants to validate his own existence, to prove that he’s somebody, and not just a lucky throwaway. Make no mistake, while this is certainly a Rocky film, this is Adonis’ movie, which is perhaps why it works so well.
Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington’s script (this is the first entry not written by Stallone) has just the right amount of franchise DNA, and contains such deftly woven character arcs that even those who have never even heard of Rocky will have a rich experience with Creed. Not a beat is wasted, and every character behaves like a real person. In the latter Rocky films, the reality was a bit heightened, and Creed marks the first time since the original that every development feels organic, and not just a machination of required plot momentum (it also grants its female characters much, much more agency). And in keeping with the Rocky tradition, the film is even a little bit funny.
Coogler directs the film with a precision that is matched by its artistry. The visuals are crisp, capturing Philadelphia in shining (and at times, grimy) glory. The energy crackles at every turn. The training montages (yes, these are required) have a life to them that transcends what a montage can be, and the boxing sequences are the best that have ever been filmed. Ever. There are more than a few impressive long takes, one which encompasses an entire bout. I honestly do not know how it was done. The marriage of choreography of both the actors and the camera feels impossible … but this franchise has always been about doing the impossible, hasn’t it? Even smaller scale shots have a lovely composition to them. Early in the film, Adonis shadowboxes over a projection of the final fight from Rocky II. He mirrors Rocky’s every move as he pummels Apollo. Not only is it beautiful to look at, but it creates a stunning visual allegory for a wealth of Creed‘s themes.
Of course none of this works without actors, and Creed makes a star out of Michael B. Jordan while acting as a powerful reminder of how good Stallone can be – and here he’s really really good. The two leads complement each other nicely, Stallone’s worn-down bulldog gruffness (and ultimately, softness) serving to corral the passionate fire of Jordan’s Creed. They are men from different times, albeit with much more in common than either would like to admit, but each are educators and students of the other. Their chemistry moved me in a big way. In fact, there’s a scene that I’ll call – for the sake of avoiding any spoilers – “the drunk tank scene” which contains the most powerfully dramatic moment of any film this year.
Of course no Rocky film would be complete without a romance, and the romance in Creed is absolutely ADORBZ. Tessa Thompson plays Bianca, a musician facing more than a few problems of her own. She and Adonis share a passion and a temper, but find motivation in one another (is this the first Rocky movie with a sex scene? I do believe so!). Watching them fall in love evokes the exact same warmth that manifested from Rocky and Adrian’s chemistry almost 40 years ago, but this time, with a much more developed female character, the relationship feels less like fate and more like, well, a relationship.
I love Creed. I love it love it love it. All of the pieces come together so nicely, and it’s so gosh-durned endearing, that I dare say it is impossible not to be emotionally affected on some level, and during our screening the audience was along for the ride at every turn. We cheered together. We laughed together. We cried together. And I’ll be damned if each and every one of us didn’t leave the theater carrying something within us that we didn’t have going in. Rocky has always been about heart, and 40 years into the franchise, it would seem there’s still plenty to spare.
DO NOT MISS THIS MOVIE.
Creed opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.