Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone
Two men stand in front of a mirror. The older one, the mentor, points to the younger one's reflection and tells him that that's the toughest opponent he'll ever have to face. Is this moment a cliche? Yes, absolutely; variations on this moment have factored into countless stories, especially sports stories. Does it work regardless? Yes. Like so many cliches that have appeared throughout the course of the Rocky series, this one is embraced in such a sincere fashion and woven so lovingly into the fabric of the narrative that it becomes a positive instead of a negative. Seven films in, the Rocky formula is by now well-worn (truth told, the formula was already well-worn with the first one), but with Creed - an entry which takes the story in the only direction it has left to go: back to the start - it doesn't feel tired. Thanks to a new star in Michael B. Jordan and a new energy brought by director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, Creed is a vibrant movie that more than justifies the continuation of a series that is now just shy of 40 years old.
Jordan stars as Adonis "Donnie" Johnson, the secret son of Apollo Creed, conceived in an affair and born after the boxer's death. After the death of his mother and some time spent in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention, Donnie is taken in by Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of Apollo Creed, who raises him as her own and tries to set him on the path to a better life. However, while her goal is to provide him with opportunities that will keep him out of the boxing ring, all Donnie really wants to do is fight. It isn't even a desire, really; it's an urgent need rooted in his soul. He needs to follow in Apollo's footsteps to prove that he's worthy of being Apollo's son, that despite the circumstances of his birth, he wasn't a mistake, and that's a call that he can't ignore, even if it means breaking with Mary Anne and setting out on his own. Having been unable to find a trainer in Los Angeles, Donnie heads for Philadelphia in order to seek out Apollo's rival and friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), in the hope of getting his assistance.
Long out of the fighting game, Rocky declines the opportunity to work with Donnie - at first. Having lost so many people - Adrian, Mickey, Paulie, and Apollo (from the third entry onward, the series has rarely missed an opportunity to kill off a character) - Rocky is drawn to Donnie and the connection he creates to the past and, despite himself, the ex-boxer becomes his trainer. While working with Rocky, Donnie also starts a relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring musician trying to make her mark before her progressive hearing loss makes her deaf. Things go smoothly at first, though Donnie's eagerness to prove himself on a major stage puts him somewhat at odds with Rocky, whose lingering guilt over not throwing in the towel during Apollo's final fight makes him overly cautious about putting Donnie in the ring. It's only when Donnie's paternity becomes public knowledge, and strangers begin openly discussing whether Donnie deserves to be associated with Apollo and whether his existence is damaging to Apollo's legacy, that fissures begin to form as Donnie struggles with his complicated feelings about the father he never met and begins lashing out, losing focus on the bigger picture as he seeks short-term satisfaction. When the opportunity comes along for him to meet the heavyweight champion in the ring, he doesn't just have to pull himself together, he also needs to decide how he wants to fit himself into the Creed legacy.
Like The Force Awakens, which found success by hewing closely to the beloved original Star Wars trilogy, Creed builds itself up by reworking Rocky. Although Donnie grows up (at least from the point he's taken in by Mary Anne) in different, more privileged circumstances than Rocky, their origins as boxers are similar, in that they both start out fighting in lower tier, underground rings, displaying a lot of grit if not necessarily much finesse. Both end up being taken under the wing of a grizzled trainer with a few unconventional training methods (one of the film's biggest laughs comes when Rocky makes Donnie chase and catch a chicken, recreating a drill that Mickey put Rocky through in Rocky II, and when Donnie succeeds, Rocky remarks that chickens have gotten slower) but plenty of hard-earned wisdom. Both also begin romances with women who, though Bianca is not painfully shy the way Adrian was, bring out the gentler, more vulnerable side of them. Creed leans heavily on nostalgia as it goes through the paces that we've come to expect from the Rocky movies, but it isn't depending on nostalgia alone. It uses the long history that the six movies that precede it have created in order to build a base and push the saga towards the next logical place, rejuvenating the narrative so that it can carry on in its new form.
Just as the success of Rocky depended a great deal on what would be Stallone's star-making turn, Creed depends on Jordan's performance, which is charismatic and complex. Donnie's struggles to grapple with the past and to find his place within the story of his father's life (and the place of his father within the story of his own life) drive much of the narrative and lend added poignancy to many of the story's familiar beats, with Stallone as Rocky, struggling with getting older and with the loneliness that comes from having lost so many of the important people in his life, bringing further depth to the narrative by tapping into the viewer's history with the character, who over the course of 40 years has changed and aged and gone through several transitions in life, including several rises and falls in his fortunes. As written by Coogler and Aaron Covington, the screenplay finds such a good balance between Donnie and Rocky, between starting one story and putting a bow on another, that it's sort of hard to resist. Creed is both an homage to Rocky and it's own distinctive story and it's so successful in what it's doing that it's easy to imagine that 40 years and seven films from now we'll be watching Michael B. Jordan pass the baton to the next contender just as Sylvester Stallone does here.