From its opening moments, Creed announces itself as different from the rest of the six movies in the now 40-year-old Rocky franchise. Gone are the giant, scrolling letters, accompanied by the blaring horns of Bill Conti’s stirring orchestral score. Instead, we are taken inside the walls of a youth detention center, a grim penitentiary environment, where we meet young Adonis Johnson - a boy who we are told is good, but is filled with boundless rage, perpetually fighting. The kid fights not only because he never knew his father, but because of who his father was: boxing legend Apollo Creed. Donnie is the product of an affair that Apollo had before he was killed in the ring by Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV. When his mother dies, he is shuffled around to foster homes, until, finally, he is taken in by Apollo’s wife, Mary Anne, played by Phylicia Rashād (who brings tremendous gravitas to a small role).
But even as Donnie grows up in the luxury of Apollo's palatial Los Angeles estate, he is still filled with unfocused anger, and sneaks away from a day job he doesn't care about to participate in boxing matches across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. Mary Anne, who watched her husband die in the ring, wants to keep Donnie away from the sport, but it's in his blood. Late at night, Donnie pulls up old videos of Apollo fighting his rival - and later best friend - Rocky Balboa, and shadowboxes along with big screen images of a father he never knew. Donnie goes to Adelphi gym, where Apollo got his start, to find someone who will train him, but despite obvious natural prowess, his skill level is not up to par, and he is turned away. Determined to make a career out of fighting, Adonis travels to Philadelphia, to seek out Rocky and be trained by him.
And here we come to the aging, shuffling legend himself, played, as always, by Sylvester Stallone - who created the character and this franchise. We find Rocky, almost ten years after we last saw him, in Rocky Balboa from 2006, a step slower, and having endured even more loss. Rocky still runs the little restaurant he had in the last film, and spends his days at the cemetery, reading the newspaper by Adrian's grave. Stallone is fantastic here, more engaged in this performance than any movie since the original Rocky. It's easy to forget, since the franchise was overtaken with Hollywood bombast, and Rocky himself would become a mouthpiece for Stallone’s political views, that, at its core, Stallone’s performance in the original movie was a brilliant piece of character acting. Rocky’s slow voice and his shuffling, ambling walk, gave you an instant portrait of the man, and let audiences know right away that, despite his hulking frame, you could trust the big guy. To see Stallone here again as Rocky, at almost 70 years old, is jarring, and strangely moving. Rocky, as we all do, it is beginning to slow down, and is not even the slightly slower, still powerful figure that he was in Rocky Balboa. This version of Rocky can’t even get in the ring with Donnie to trade punches with him, but he does agree to train him.
Like the original movie, Creed features a slow build in intensity. The film takes its time with its story and characters. It's not until almost an hour into the movie that Donnie gets his first professional fight, and by then we're so invested in his story, and the nostalgia and sadness of seeing Rocky in his corner, that the fight is a much needed release of emotional tension. That tension is heightened by the technique used by director Ryan Coogler - who films the fight in one long take, keeping tight focus on the two men in the ring. We dance with them around each other, duck and jab and weave along with them, and feel the throbbing blow of each landed punch. The Rocky series - especially in the cartoonish bouts that would define its later installments - never featured realistic boxing, but the boxing scenes in Creed are not only the most visceral, exciting boxing scenes in the history of the franchise, but the the best boxing scenes in film history. Yes, I am aware that Raging Bull exists. Yes, the boxing scenes in Creed are still better.
But none of it, not the nostalgia, not the impressive boxing scenes, would matter if we didn't so believe in the hero at the center of the story. Adonis Johnson is not Rocky Balboa, but he is an underdog, and what he’s fighting to prove even he may not understand until he gives voice to it at the film's stunningly emotional climax. Mirroring its storyline, Creed itself completes the ascendancy of Michael B. Jordan from raw talent to megawatt star. Excellent, with an easy charisma, for as long as he's been on screen, Jordan has been a rising star since he was fifteen years old. Coogler's last film, Fruitvale Station, allowed Jordan to show his emotional range, but even that fine (and controversially ignored by the Oscars) performance didn't showcase the depth of Jordan's talent. Like the character he plays, Jordan is given an opportunity that carries tremendous weight with it - transforming one of the most iconic franchises in film history - and makes the moment completely his own.
That's not to say that the film doesn't give nods to the old series. It does, in fun, smart ways. We're told, for instance, who won that freeze-frame fight at the end of Rocky III, Adonis chases chickens as part of his training, as Rocky himself did in the originals, and we go along for one more trip up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (though why we're there, and the emotional impact of the moment, I'll leave a secret). Even the score, so key to the original’s success, only hints at the main Rocky theme until it finally bursts out in full voice at the moment when Adonis finally understands who he is.
Stirring and vibrant, filled with loving nostalgia for the series, and brilliant performances by Jordan and Stallone, Creed is a movie that punches far above its emotional weight, and the only film of the Rocky franchise to match, and perhaps even surpass, the emotion of the original.