There’s a very special place in my heart for Rocky (1976) and I choose those words very carefully. The reason being, subsequent films lost the appeal of the original and I simultaneously lost interest in the franchise. Perhaps it’s because, after Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough film, the series lost much of its unassuming charm. It was no longer an underdog story. It no longer felt as personal and intimate.
It’s true that I cannot pass any kind of judgment on Rocky II, III, IV, V, and Rocky Balboa. But it’s so easy to lose your guiding light, for a franchise to drift away from what made it good by simply relying on blockbuster status, star power, and a robust fanbase. These very things kept me away and yet Creed made me extremely happy that I came back into the fold.
This is by no means a rehash of the original Rocky, that beloved classic in the pantheon of sports movies, but it knows its lineage and maintains the same spirit of that narrative. But when you have such a strong sense of your roots, that makes it all the easier to head out into new terrain.
Creed is, of course, about Apollo Creed’s son. Because whether you know it or not (I didn’t) Apollo Creed has passed away. He was (SPOILER) killed by Ivan Drago. All he left behind was his wife, an illustrious boxing career, and crucial to this story, an illegitimate son who has grown up much of his life in juvie. But his widow tracks down the boy and looks to rehabilitate him, like a prodigal son gone astray.
Over time, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Johnson) grows in knowledge and stature, landing a job in a company where he is rising up the ranks, but he’s discontent. He does some boxing on the side behind closed doors, in places that no one of any repute has heard of but he strives to be like his deceased father. He wants to be a boxer, ditching his job, leaving his step-mother’s lavish home behind to start on his own hero’s journey.
And unsurprisingly his dreams take him to that gem of a city — the City of Brotherly Love — Philadelphia, to seek out a man who now runs a humble Italian restaurant christened “Adrian’s.” Donnie walks into this establishment with a mission, to get to know the former rival of his father, to get this aging man to train him in his own boxing career.
Rocky Balboa (Stallone reprising his role) is not about that life anymore. Content with simplicity and the memories that are left from his many years in the ring. If his restaurant is any indication, it stands as a testament of the love he still holds for his wife, who passed away. He visits her every week at the local cemetery still sharing his life with her like his closest confidante.
It’s moments like these that suggest that director Ryan Coogler’s film is a cut above some of the previous offerings. It’s this fascinating idea of a transgenerational film — it’s Rocky for the millennial generation but it shows a certain deference and even wistful reverence for its past — even the music constantly hinting at Bill Conti’s iconic score. But that should not be mistaken for being stuck in the past because with Michael B. Jordan in the lead, he motors the story forward with his own Rocky-like resolve.
Yes, his daddy is Apollo Creed, but he’s looking to make a name for himself apart from that. He starts calling on the girl downstairs — the local singer-songwriter Bianca and his relationship with “Uncle” Rocky quickly grows. They’re family now. And for boxing fans, Creed has its fair share of training sequences, buildup, and such, as Creed himself becomes an underdog facing off against world champion Jack Conlon. But if that’s all that Creed was, I would have been content going back to the original Rocky.
However, Creed suggests something very powerful as noted by Rocky early on. Time takes everyone out, time’s undefeated. There are affectionate callbacks to Adrian (the restaurant) and Paulie (Adonis stays in his old bedroom), even Apollo. But all of them are gone now. All of them lost against time. And Rocky nearly does as well. It’s inevitable. However, with the story of young Adonis we are reminded that there’s still room for hope and dreams and love and caring about other people. Those are things to be treasured.
Here Ryan Coogler has proven once more that he is a rising director crafting compelling films. Teaming up again with Michael B. Jordan after the searing Fruitvale Station, he fills the blockbuster with the same ambiance of an independent film with hot dog vendors and little bits of everyday authenticity. There’s a certain amount of documentary realism that still manages to be cinematic and at the same time surprisingly personal. So if you love Rocky go see Creed. If you love boxing go see Creed. But beyond that, it’s a film with a great deal to offer and I was heartily impressed in how it balances the past and the present with so much poise.