Posted on Thursday, November 19th, 2015 by Jacob Hall
Creed is a very, very good movie… but it’s a perfect Rocky movie. Here is that familiar, tried and true template given a fresh coat of paint and lovingly restored by people who give a damn. If you’ve ever liked any of the films in this series, this spin-off is going to get your blood pumping and eyes leaking. It’s the movie you want.
However, the real miracle of Creed is that isn’t anything like the Rocky sequels. The follow-ups to the original masterpiece (which is one of the best movies ever made) took a turn for the ridiculous. They got silly and began to lean too hard on series star Sylvester Stallone‘s action hero persona. The warmth, the charm, and the honesty of the first film was resurrected for 2006’s Rocky Balboa, but it’s back in full force in Creed. This spin-off, which finds an aging Rocky training the son of the late Apollo Creed, is second only to the first movie, and that’s because it recognizes what the first movie did so right.
Like them or not (and Rocky III and Rocky IV do offer some absurd pleasures), the Rocky sequels feel like Saturday morning cartoon versions of a genuinely great movie. Creed does the impossible: it coexists with them while avoiding everything they did wrong.
A Big Jolt of Humanity
Like them or not, the Rocky sequels often betrayed their characters’ humanity. The sweet, bumbling Rocky Balboa of the first film quickly became a stone-faced action hero out to save the world from Communism with his boxing prowess alone. The layered, flawed supporting cast was reduced to cartoon characters, with Adrian, Paulie and Mick acting like cardboard cutouts of their former selves. Those later films can be fun, but they’re powered by bombast. They’re silly. They simply do not exist in the same universe as the first Rocky.
The beauty of Creed is that it’s a very small movie. This is a barebones, human story that focuses on the men in the ring and the people in their lives. Any action in the boxing ring, any game-changing plot point, exists to to force these characters to make big decisions, learn and grow. Tonally, Creed is very much a Rocky movie, but it’s the characters who transform it into its own unique beast.
Creed is, first and foremost, a portrait of Adonis Johnson. Michael B. Jordan‘s performance is one of quiet rage and bruised determination. This is a man at war with a father who’s been dead for decades, and a legacy that has every intention of defining him before he can define himself. This is not a photocopy of the original Rocky, but it’s very much a companion piece. It would have been easy for director Ryan Coogler to lean hard on Rocky imagery, to bring in that iconic score to create instant tears in a nostalgic crowd. But he doesn’t. The Rocky elements are there and that classic music is there, but this is Adonis’ movie, his story. Creed uses our love of the earlier films (however many that may be) as a garnish. The main course is something new. Adonis isn’t Rocky 2.0. He’s his own guy, and definitely product of his time and upbringing.
Sylvester Stallone may win an Oscar for his performance in Creed. His performance is that good, and meta-narrative of his career coming full circle is impossible to ignore. Here is an actor who has spent so many years bending films and characters to his will and shaping characters around a familiar persona, that we’ve forgotten what a powerhouse he can be when he cares. At some point in his career, Stallone got so comfortable playing a type that everyone forgot what a powerful and nuanced performer he can be.
The Rocky Balboa here is the older, rougher-around-the-edges version of the character we saw in Rocky, Rocky II, and Rocky Balboa. He’s an old-fashioned guy and maybe a little dim. But he’s smart where it counts and he’s loyal to those he loves. Stallone fills Rocky will blue-collar charm and affection. He’s weathered the storm and he’s been down for the count, but he always gets back up. This guy, this old man who owns a quaint Italian restaurant and visits the graves of his loved ones for extended chats, is very much the same guy who took a shy girl back to his apartment to show off his turtles back in 1976. He’s not the guy who fought Mr. T.
Stallone and Coogler know that we care about Rocky, but they also know that this is Adonis’ show and that Rocky must watch from the sidelines. And that’s okay. As the second lead on the edge of the spotlight, the former champ is allowed to showcase layers we have never seen before, to reveal his broken heart and weathered body. Creed asks Rocky to fight, but his battle is far different than one we’ve seen before. We know this guy. We love this guy. Welcome back, Rock.