In an era when every intellectual property and film franchise is being rebooted, re-imagined and prequeled ad nauseam, I was skeptical about this new Rocky spin-off. Creed, the tale of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son striving to forge his own boxing career, felt like a bit of a stretch if not completely unnecessary; especially after 2006’s Rocky Balboa brought the series back to it’s humble roots [in reality] and appeared to wrap things up nicely once and for all. Well…I was mistaken. Big time. Creed is not only a brilliant film but quickly just became one of my favorite movies of the year.
Director Ryan Coogler’s follow up to his much lauded debut, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, is the perfect Hollywood sports drama. The high energy boxing scenes are fantastic, while the out of ring, personal fireworks are just as dynamic. Michael B. Jordan stars in the titular role as Donnie Johnson, aka, Apollo’s long lost son, Adonis Creed. Growing up without a father and losing his biological mother at a young age, Donnie bounces around foster homes and juvenile institutions for years until his would-be step mother, Apollo’s widow, takes him in and raises him as her own. Despite his rags to riches upbringing, Donnie still can’t shake his feelings of inadequacy. Fearing that he hasn’t truly earned his namesake, he decides to become a professional boxer like his late father and prove to the world, and himself, that he truly is Adonis Creed. What follows is the best damn boxing tearjerker I’ve ever seen.
Coogler’s love for the Rocky films is on full display in Creed. Turns out that Coogler’s family has a long and touching history with the series and as he explained to the Los Angeles Times recently:
“I was born in 1986, and ‘Rocky’ was always around,” Coogler said. “There were these things that existed for us as millennials, like ‘Star Wars.’ ‘Rocky’ was like ‘Star Wars’ for the underdog, like ‘Star Wars’ for the street.”
Having grown up with the franchise, Coogler handles the film with both nostalgic care for long time fans, and auteur precision behind the camera. There are technical elements of Creed that will get cinephiles drooling, like the film’s insane second fight that was filmed in a single, unbroken take. Coogler also packs the film with enough Easter eggs and call backs to keep die hard Rocky fanboys happy. From Balboa’s love of turtles, revealing who won his secret third fight with Apollo in Rocky III, to incorporating the iconic Rocky theme song into Adonis’ epic final match, Coogler’s film is both a love letter to the franchise’s past and an exciting new step into the future. Jordan’s physical performance in the boxing and training sequences is impressive, but not as intense as his emotional portrayal of the perpetually isolated and dysfunctional Donnie. His chiseled physique hides his inner vulnerability. Haunted by the ghost of his absent father, the bastard son of the world’s greatest fighter lashes out at the world, even those closest to him, while exhibiting no fear inside the ring. Why would he? When your entire life is an open wound, what’s a few more hits?
The relationship forged between Donnie and his father’s old partner Rocky Balboa, is truly the heart of the film. Hands down, Sylvester Stallone gives the best performance of his career. Stallone, the man who wrote, directed [four of the six originals] and starred in the original series, graciously passes the torch to Coogler behind the camera just as his character Rocky moves out of the ring and into Adonis’ corner as his trainer and surrogate father figure onscreen. Watching the Italian Stallion, go from being an inhuman piece of iron, to an ailing and fragile Yoda figure; essentially becoming his mentor Mick from the original film, is both humbling and heart wrenching for anyone who grew up watching Rocky save the day on television. During their first encounter, Rocky tells Donnie, “Time takes everybody out. Time’s undefeated.” With the Rocky universe now in Coogler’s skilled hands, Jordan’s firebrand performance and Stallone’s renewed vigor onscreen, it looks like father time won’t be claiming the Rocky franchise just yet.