The Rocky franchise is no-nonsense entertainment that, at its best, didn’t have to give the audience exactly what they wanted. The character of Rocky Balboa wouldn’t enjoy the status he does if he always won; he’s suffered both professional and personal traumas and emerged intact, so it was no surprise that crowds went to see the champ go for another bout in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. That was sixteen years after Rocky V, and now we’re another decade down the line. Have the audience got the guts for one more bout? Has Rocky? The title may be a giveaway, but Creed sees Rocky stepping out of the ring in favour of new blood. The long-gone Apollo Creed was one of Rocky’s most worthy opponents, so a little vanity must be in play when Stallone’s battered warhorse is tempted back into the game as a trainer by Apollo’s illegitimate son, Adonis.
Sylvester Stallone’s pugilistic alter ego has earned a place in the public consciousness with honest, unshowy filmmaking and a righteousness that only cloyed when the films became cartoonishly political. As a remedy, Creed brings a certain critical bite to go with the punches. As played by Michael B. Jordan (coming to a franchise more worthy of his easygoing charm than that Fantastic Four debacle), Adonis Creed is the fighter we need here and now. Rocky was an all-American hero but, as much as he earned his victories, Adonis is more representative of the underdogs in the United States of today. We meet Adonis as a young inmate of juvenile hall, barely an adolescent and fighting older boys to get by. All the inmates are necessarily tough, and all are African-American. This is but one of many reminders of reality from director Ryan Coogler, whose calling-card debut Fruitvale Station brought home the perils of prejudice. Coogler and his Fruitvale leading man Jordan take that experience and weave it into a narrative that accommodates and delivers it to the masses in a grounded yet unpreachy way. The new underdog is under for more sinister reasons, and few of those boys will be afforded anything like the chance Adonis is about to get.
Adonis is gifted a lifeline: forgiveness. Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) looks past her husband’s transgression to take in his son. It also brings the pressures of a burdensome legacy onto Adonis, but Coogler’s direction, and his and Aaron Covington’s script, ensure the film is nimble enough to never get buried under the weight of its expectations. Despite the quasi-biblical intonations of its title, Creed is first and foremost a part of a recognizable franchise, and Coogler certainly gets to grips with the necessaries. There are montages, heavy lifting, and emotional setbacks (a burgeoning relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is a touching reprieve from the demands of the ring). It’s all there because Rocky lore is built on this stuff.
Despite the sporty trappings, the key to Creed’s success is a devotion to its main man. An initial bout sees Coogler and DoP Maryse Alberti’s camera remaining glued on Adonis whilst he delivers the blows. It’s a memorable scene, but it shows that Creed’s focus is on the fighter, not the fight. Adonis gets and deserves our attention because he shoulders burdens of all kinds, and all out of pure determination. He didn’t need to represent Apollo, Rocky or any other underdog, but Jordan’s physical and emotional dedication ensures we’re with him anyway. Helping him along the way is Stallone’s old war horse, transferring his energies from his fists to his voicebox to cheer Adonis on with a glimmer of a twinkle still in his eye. A wry laugh comes from a scene in which Rocky, Adonis and Bianca sit down to watch Skyfall on TV. The young’uns fall asleep but, just like James Bond, there’s still life left in Stallone’s yesteryear throwback.
Formula dictates that Adonis trains, builds up, falls and builds up again ahead of a big fight, and that duly happens. While Adonis combats his demons, Rocky fights his own battles. Creed flirts with cheesiness on occasion, but Coogler has too much invested in the film to succumb. It has its punch-the-air moments, but they never feel unearned. Creed is hardwired with Rocky’s lack of cynicism, which even allows it to build in a moment at the famous steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. All of this builds to a fight with champion fighter ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (played by very real pugilist Tony Bellew). For all there is riding on the fight, both plot-wise and thematically, it only ever comes down to two men in the ring. Creed is the man, and the film, to rise up to the challenge of most any rival.