Seven entries into a long-running franchise, that maybe lost its goodwill over the years, and we get blessed with something as well-made and enjoyable as Creed? Sometimes the movie gods smile benevolently down upon us. If only more mainstream movie-making was as deeply felt and engrossing as this.
Perhaps passing the reigns of the franchise over to Ryan Coogler, he of Fruitvale Station fame, was the smartest decision someone made. He didn’t just revive the Rocky franchise, he smartly gave the focus to someone else, passing the baton away from aged boxer Balboa to young upstart Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. This allows the franchise to go back to where it all started, as a small character piece and a look at a particular slice of life in an impoverished area.
Did anyone realize in 1976 that forty years later the film would spawn an entire franchise? I doubt it very much, yet here we are with the spinoff, and it’s so damn good. The specificity of place is part of what made Rocky so beloved, as it looked into the realities of life in the Italian neighborhood and the struggle to break free of the streets. Creed provides many of these same beats, but with a twist.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) grew up in the foster care system and in juvenile delinquent centers before being adopted by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad). He takes to underground fights in Mexico, before dropping out of his cushy job and moving to Philadelphia, tracking down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), and asking Rocky to train him. There’s the persistent throb of father-son dynamics at play here, with Adonis flailing about in rage and vulnerabilities looking for a father-figure and chasing the legacy of the father he never knew.
This Philadelphia is a city sitting in its former glory, with vast stretches of streets littered with the remnants of mom-and-pop stores. The training clubs for boxers feel like insular little pockets in a slowly dilapidating world. If the film is slightly heavy on the symbolism, then at least it’s striving to say something deeper with it. Philadelphia feels like Rocky, the prodigal son of this town, slightly cantankerous and beaten down, but too stubborn and perseverant to go into that long goodnight. If nothing else, it’s a welcome respite from all of the films set in New York, Los Angeles, or some other major metropolitan area, and the city feels real and rich in character.
If the real world was just, and it is not, then Creed would provide Michael B. Jordan with the arrival star power moment he so clearly deserves. In trying to watch the Oscar nominees in the major categories, I can’t help but echo the chorus of people saying that Jordan’s stellar work here was robbed, not only of a nomination but of a possible well-deserved win. He gets so much to play throughout this film, moments of great tenderness and vulnerability with Tessa Thompson’s love interest, or in the paternal bonding with Rocky. A quiet moment in the climatic fight where he states that he has to finish the fight to prove that he wasn’t a mistake and deserving of love and self-worth is deeply effecting. There are also moments of great rages, the emotional scars of his childhood bursting through the repression.
Meeting him every step of the way are a chorus of unique supporting voices. Tessa Thompson is a very talented up-and-comer, and she generates palpable chemistry with Jordan. Her character is a musician who is slowly going deaf, all of the characters in this seem to be running from some force that threatens to eat away at their core and passions, and she refuses to play the character for self-pity. Thompson is quite lovely, and there’s a certain playfulness behind her eyes and smile that brings an extra spark to her performances. Much like Jordan, she deserves to be a huge star.
Phylicia Rashad is a minor supporting player, but her presence is a reminder of how commanding and powerful she is in dramatic parts. She is by turns warmly maternal and a stern authoritative presence. Rashad’s work here is tiny compared to the rest, but she makes a lasting impression as a woman who wanted her adopted son to do anything but chase the ghost of his father. Yet the real revelation here is Sylvester Stallone. I’m as shocked as anyone else, and I frankly haven’t been this shocked at a former star’s return to glory since Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights. This isn’t mere movie star charisma and posturing, Stallone has plenty of juicy moments to get ugly for his art, and he engages with them head-on. There’s a world weariness and melancholy to Rocky here that feels new, and Stallone plunges into the depths of his character’s sadness for all that it is worth. I never thought I would say this, but I hope Stallone wins the Oscar.
Yet these actors could not deliver these wonderful performances if it weren’t for the script, which is economical and knows when to shut up and let the actions and images tell the story. We don’t need to know all of the thoughts going through Rocky’s head when he gets a health scare, because the sadness behind his eyes and the half-formed words and sentences tell us everything that he is thinking. Even better is how it trusts the actors to believably communicate the relationships so that a line like “If I fight, you fight” is poignant and not cloying. Or the occasional razzle-dazzle flourish, like the way the film introduces a new boxer by presenting their nicknames and stats in a freeze frame.
2015 was a surprising year for long-running franchises, with the best entry yet in the Mad Max series applying a layer of feminist critique and empowerment, Star Wars passing the baton to two males of color and a female in the leading heroic roles, and Rocky passing it off to a young black male. If this isn’t a signal that diversity sells, and it’s what people want, to see reflections of their life writ large and played for myth, then I don’t know what else will. All of three of these films have provided me with some of my favorite movie going experiences of the year, and it’s a damn shame the Academy couldn’t bestow more love to this film, because it really deserves it.