There’s an alternate timeline in which Creed is a superfluous waste of nostalgia. In that universe, Warner Bros. gave the reins to a filmmaker other than Ryan Coogler, the young Oakland-born director who stunned viewers in 2013 with Fruitvale Station, a bio-drama about the death of Oscar Grant. Maybe Coogler is the last person anyone might expect to take up Sylvester Stallone’s mantle and breathe new life into the long-abiding, conditionally beloved Rocky franchise. Fruitvale Station, after all, doesn’t suggest Coogler’s ability at orchestrating thrills in the square circle. It’s socially conscious art made for a moment in American history where our nation remains undecided as to whether black lives matter or not.
There’s a chance that Creed might have turned out just fine without Coogler at the helm. But that version of Creed would lack the chief detail that makes Coogler’s film so good: perspective. Structurally, Creed is nearly a beat-for-beat remake of Rocky, which is fine if not particularly exciting on paper. It’s different, though, because it isn’t about Rocky Balboa at all. It’s about Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky’s rival-turned-best friend, Apollo Creed, whom we first meet in juvie pummeling an older, larger boy while their fellow delinquents cheer and jeer them on. Apollo died in 1985, when Rocky IV and Dolph Lundgren both proved to be too much for him to withstand. Adonis, a child of one of Apollo’s extramarital affairs, never knew the man or became acquainted with his reputation.
Creed plays with the idea of fatherhood in absentia through Adonis’ struggle to make a name for himself while honoring his dad’s. Adonis, or “Donnie,” is raised by Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo’s widow, out of a sense of compassion and duty, and she tries her best to steer him away from a boxer’s life. As Donnie gets older and more recalcitrant, though, her efforts are spurned. “I ought to knock you out myself,” she fumes when he comes home with a shiner after pissing off trained, tested boxers with his raw braggadocio. (It’s a moment of frustrated parenthood that Ta-Nehisi Coates would identify with instantly.) He can’t help but fight, even though he doesn’t need to. Mary Anne has wealth and means, and subsequently so does Donnie. So why fight at all?
That’s the fundamental question Donnie and Creed have to answer to succeed, though maybe the better question is, “What’s worth fighting for?” Creed checks about every box it can in reply to that query: Pride. Honor. Dignity. Self-respect. Family name. The adrenaline boost of being in the arena. It saves the best, and most important, answer for last, though, and that’s personhood. He’s fighting to prove himself in deep, existential ways. Donnie has no connection to his dad except through video footage of his matches (which Donnie shadowboxes to). His best bet at finding that connection is through Rocky, and because Creed is a Rocky film, it inevitably must trot out the champ. So Donnie makes for Philly and harangues Rocky into training him.
Creed fully comes alive in Rocky’s first meeting with Donnie. Their introduction is a snowball effect: The more they interact, the better the film gets. Part of the allure here is watching two great, but very different, performers bounce off of each other by doing their respective things: Stallone is so good at the humble, streetwise sage act that he could do it in his sleep, but he’s more engaged with Coogler’s material than he’s ever been with a single Expendables joint. How could he not be? Jordan is the kind of actor who brings so much vim to his roles that he forces his co-stars to work harder by consequence. They’re a fantastic buddy pair. Jordan gives Stallone his fire. Stallone lends Jordan his experience.
Eventually, their partnership winds its way up to a high-stakes boxing match with Creed’s heavy, a nasty, undefeated British boxer named “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew). But Creed is about rich storytelling more than tight plotting, and Coogler is such a vivid narrator that you might overlook how well he and cinematographer Maryse Alberti capture the movie’s many bouts. (It’s also worth noting that he cuts a pretty damn great montage, too.) The journey here is more meaningful than the destination thanks to the way Coogler subverts the Rocky formula as well as the modern studio tentpole. The underdog here isn’t a poor kid from Kensington; he’s the heir of a boxing legend who follows the path to prove that he deserves just to exist. The love interest isn’t a throwaway detail; Bianca (Tessa Thompson), Donnie’s bonnie lass, is a musician with progressive hearing loss who at first appears to exist just to motivate him, until she baldly questions that misogynistic trope and asserts herself as a fully realized human being in the process.
And then, of course, there’s Rocky himself, who is revealed to have cancer later on in the film. There’s an air of masculine chagrin to his arc. We’re not used to seeing guys like Rocky laid this low and left this vulnerable. Donnie is his chance at winning glory in the ring again, but the kid also gives him the strength to fight anew when he’s down and out. It’s every bit as schmaltzy as it sounds, but schmaltz is Rocky’s bread and butter. Coogler makes it his, too. He understands that schmaltz is pure delight when it’s served properly: with earnest emotion and through rousing spectacle. Creed defies our expectations of its genre even as it fulfills them. You may not see a better crowd-pleaser this season.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.