One thing to know about Creed is that while the film is definitely a mainstream studio movie, it wasn't some spin-off idea generated by a bunch of number-crunchers in a boardroom at MGM who were looking for new ways to rejuvenate the Rocky franchise. Co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) came up with the story himself years ago and lobbied to tell it, and while the movie absolutely benefits from the iconography established in the previous films (including Sylvester Stallone himself), there's also an undeniably different perspective at work here, one that's arguably just as personal as Stallone's original script that kicked this whole thing off back in 1976.
Another thing to know about Creed? It's really, really good.
Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Fantastic Four) plays Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed — the legendary boxer who was killed (in the ring, no less) before he was born. Adonis, who spent his childhood in juvenile detention facilities and fought constantly with other kids, is taken in by Creed's widow when he's a young boy, but that itch to fight never goes away. He has a good job in the financial field but prefers boxing in Tijuana, racking up an undefeated record across fifteen fights. In his adopted mom's L.A. mansion, he projects YouTube videos of Apollo's bouts with Rocky Balboa on the walls and positions himself as if he's the one boxing his father, fighting the ghost of a man he's never known but who has thus far defined his life.
Adonis, who goes by "Donnie," quits his job and heads to Philadelphia to seek training from Rocky, who reluctantly agrees after discovering Donnie's parentage. Creed makes perfect use of Stallone as the aging Balboa. Rocky is quiet, lonely, and reserved, a man who's lived a whirlwind life and been left with nothing but memories. But these films understand that a fighter can't make it to the top on his own, so Rocky steps into Burgess Meredith's Mickey role and becomes the support system for Donnie, both in the ring and out. Stallone gives a moving, measured performance that's his most affecting work in years, and when he begins to experience his own set of challenges, an extra layer of emotion blankets the story. Meanwhile, Donnie begins a romance with his downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who becomes another lifeline for him and a part of their surrogate family.
Though the rest of the story plays out with the basically the same formula as the original Rocky — Donnie gets a shot at the big time, training montages ensue, there's some drama leading up to the big final fight, etc. — Coogler brings vitality and energy to the storytelling with some virtuoso long takes, including one that encompasses the entirety of Donnie's first professional fight under Rocky's tutelage. Coogler's camera skillfully follows him into the ring and fluidly slides all around it, capturing the fight from both boxers' perspectives and putting the audience square in the middle of the action. But it's not just camera tricks that make this story work: the performances from everyone are top notch, including a completely jacked Michael B. Jordan who seemingly effortlessly succeeds at pulling off both the strength and vulnerability required for his character. And the score, by Childish Gambino collaborator Ludwig Goransson, keeps the energy up and incorporates Bill Conti's iconic "Gonna Fly Now" at a key moment that caused a section of my crowd of normally stodgy film critics to burst into applause.
An exploration of legacy, identity, and family, Creed is an outstanding piece of mainstream moviemaking that modernizes the Rocky franchise in a thrilling, crowd-pleasing way. I can't wait for this team to get back in the ring to continue this story.