In many ways, CREED is a formula film, but one done with so much palpable affection and respect on the part of director and co-writer Ryan Coogler for its inspiration, ROCKY, that it’s impossible to not be swept along by it. Expanding that franchise’s universe, he takes it into the next generation by giving Rocky’s first opponent, Apollo Creed, a posthumous son, and one with issues that compel him to follow in his father’s footsteps. And no one willing to help him but Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, who else?) himself.
Why would anyone choose to enter the ring if there were another option? It’s the question that hangs over the film, and whose answer is the stuff of poetry. Before we get there, though, we have the backstory, the one that gave Apollo’s son, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) another option after being adopted by Apollo’s wife (Phylicia Rashad). The wife is not, ahem, Adonis’ mother, but some soul-searching after the loss of her husband has led her to this pugnacious kid with no family to call his own. Yet even going from foster families and group homes to the security of the lush life in a gated mansion and a lucrative career in high finance, Adonis is still restless. The kid who loved to fight still does, and after trying to divide his time between the office and ring, he chucks it all to take his shot at boxing glory away from his LA home where his father’s legend looms too large. Where better to go than Philadelphia? And who better than Rocky to take him from semi-pro to the title?
There are all the usual tropes. Rocky, retired from boxing to run a restaurant, is delighted to meet Apollo’s son, but not open to training him. Of course he relents as Adonis, who goes by Donny now and a last name other than Creed, wears him down with a combination of determination, guilt, and charm. Of course the girl playing her music too loudly downstairs from Donny’s apartment is a nubile stunner. Of course fate paves the way for Donny to go from unknown to boxing commodity to taking a shot at that ci-mentioned title. What saves all this is Coogler’s breathtaking direction, both in and out of the ring, and a performance from Jordan that has the emotional urgency and fluid grace of a perfectly delivered left hook. Not to mention some of Stallone’s best work in years, now that he is not playing a ham-brained caricature. As for what happens in the ring: the way the camera enters the ring and dances with the fighters themselves delivers not just the immediacy of men trading blows, but also the more nuanced dynamics of dominance as each man relies on strategy as well as brute force.
CREED never relies on it antecedents. There is nothing perfunctory or facile in its execution. It is, instead, a heartfelt homage and a film that can stand on its own.