REVIEW — “Creed”
Your legacy is more than a name. Creed, as a film, is about more than just the legacy of the Rocky series. It’s more than just a sequel/spinoff to an iconic and legendary franchise that has endured for nearly forty years. The film isn’t a cash-in on a franchise that came to an irreversible close with 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Creed is more than a name: it goes toe-to-toe in the ring with 1976’s original Rocky and creates its own legacy. It’s birthed from a champion, but it doesn’t trade on that champ’s name: it makes its own. It’s easy to call Creed a knockout. Creed isn’t just contender for film of the year – it’s a powerhouse of a film and the best in its class.
There are those among us who slip into names and legacies like a pair of old and worn boxing gloves. And then there are those among us who craft and create their own legacies. Legacies carved out of blood, sweat, and tears. Such is the tale of Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed – the once undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. In Rocky, an underdog from the streets of Philadelphia took on the best boxing champion in the world and went the distance. While Creed serves as a quasi-remake of Rocky – the film hits a lot of the same beats – Donny’s story is less about going the distance and more about proving you’re more than a name. Apollo Creed died thirty years ago, but his presence is felt throughout the film – often serving as something to aspire to, and even more often serving as something to overcome.
Creed covers the same general story beats as Sylvester Stallone’s screenplay for Rocky, but – much like Adonis Creed moving out from underneath the impossibly big shadow of Apollo Creed – this film is its own thing. There are parts of Rocky, parts which are completely identifiable and immediately obvious to any fan of Balboa’s six-picture saga, but in a film where the major thematic element is respecting the past while at the same time creating your own legacy, Creed as a whole manages to reflect this overriding theme. Paying respect to what came before, it adheres to that legacy, but – in a way that’s bordering on contradiction – isn’t a rehash. Creed is a fresh and modern Rocky for a new generation, while at the same time avoiding the mistakes that plague so-called “re-imaginings.”
Creed is very much part of the Rocky “universe,” as is the film’s main setting of Philadelphia. This isn’t just Philly – this is Rocky’s Philly. It’s a world that is gritty, grounded, and very much our own. Traveling to the cold, hard streets of Philadelphia from Los Angeles, “Hollywood” – as he becomes not-so-lovingly referred to by many a detractor – seeks out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), the trusted friend and confidant of once-rival and opponent Apollo Creed. The Italian Stallion is now a greyed war horse, with everything in life having passed him by and left him behind. This serves as the first bridge of connection that Donny and Rocky will share: they both feel left behind, Rocky with his loved ones and Donny with the father he never knew. A reluctant Rocky becomes Donny’s “Mickey,” the aged and wise boxing veteran who very literally shows the hungry newcomer the ropes.
It’s hard to avoid comparisons to Rocky when discussing Creed – and as much as Creed carves out and establishes its own identity, it would be doing the film a disservice not to speak on the similarities between the two films. While the initial comparisons are obvious – an underdog with a chip on his shoulder out to prove something to himself takes on the biggest, baddest boxer in the world, accompanied by a new love and an experienced trainer – the biggest similarity between the cinematic brethren is the level of craftsmanship on every level. Rocky had a realness, presenting a world that was gritty, grounded, emotionally raw, and lived in. While there are plenty of homages and callbacks to the past Rocky films – from music cues to verbal mentions to visual references – Creed has a grit to it in every sense of the word.
Not only in the dirty and tattered (but appreciated) streets of Philadelphia, but in the sense that every emotion in Creed is raw, real, and human. That, more than anything else, is why Rocky worked as well as it did and why it won the Academy Award for Best Picture: it’s an incredibly human movie about the human spirit. It’s not about fighting, it’s not about boxing, it’s not about winning. The entirety of both the Rocky saga and what Rocky himself stands for was encapsulated in Rocky Balboa, with Rocky telling his son, “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.”
Creed understands this, presenting a human drama about the perseverance of the human spirit and the overcoming of obstacles. The film hits every emotional beat at just the right time, with just the right amount of power, delivering knockout punches in every round. Whereas the heart of Rocky was the relationship between the hard-hitting Rocky and the shy Adrian, the pounding heartbeat of Creed is very much the relationship between Donny and his surrogate father, Rocky. Rocky isn’t just Donny’s father figure – he becomes family. The bond that develops and grows between the two is not only the heart of the movie, it’s the foundation. If Jordan and Stallone didn’t have the profound chemistry that they do, the film absolutely would not have worked.
“Women weaken legs” is one of Mickey Goldberg’s old adages, and the same is true of film: poorly developed relationships weaken movies. That’s not a concern in Creed: the rapport and kinship between Donny and Rocky is the main attraction of the film, and feels effortlessly natural and organic. The character development is handled perfectly, with the pair of fighters – fighters not in the ring, but in life – forming a symbiotic relationship. “If I fight, you fight,” Donny tells his beaten-down mentor, making an unbreakable pact that completes the emotional arc of the story. Rocky is as you remember him – inspiring, funny, lovable – and fighting a battle. This fight can’t be won with gloved-up fists, leading to Stallone delivering the performance of his career.
All underdog stories need a likable protagonist – we need to love and root for the character to win. We need to want to see him succeed. With Creed, you’ll need to grip your armrests to prevent yourself from standing and cheering for Donny Johnson, a kid who isn’t out to cash in on his dead father’s name: he wants to create a name for himself. Johnson, Creed, he can be both: but if we don’t care about seeing him get there, everything is for naught. Thanks to Ryan Coogler’s flawless direction and Jordan’s passionate performance, Donny is a sympathetic character worth investing in and rooting for. He not only wants to do things for himself – as he’s been doing his entire life – he’s compassionate. He’s kind. “You’re your father’s son,” says Mary Anne Creed to her adoptive son, and Donny very much is a Creed: though he lacks the overconfidence and blunt arrogance of his father. Like Rocky Balboa, if we don’t care about him, we don’t want to undergo this journey alongside him. Donny is realized so fantastically that it’s a challenge not to root for him – and it’s even harder to resist jumping to your feet in breathless anticipation during every visceral, pulse-pounding boxing scene.
Creed receiving anything less than Academy Award nominations for best picture, direction, screenplay, cinematography, score, and supporting actor for Stallone would be nothing less than cinematic sin. “You see this guy here staring back at you, that’s your toughest opponent. Every time you get into the ring, that’s who you’re going against. I believe that in boxing, and I do believe that in life,” says Rocky during training of the young Creed, summing up the biggest obstacle Creed had to knock down: itself. Creed could have relied on homages, references, and nostalgia to cash in on the wallets of lifelong Rocky fans such as myself, offering nothing more than a soulless rip-off of a film banking on the name of Rocky Balboa. Instead, Creed is a perfectly crafted film that has gone on to weigh in as the undisputed, must-see drama champion of 2015.
Creed: 5/5 stars.
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