Creed Review

Sylvester Stallone returns as Rocky Balboa in this spinoff to the famous series, starring Michael B. Jordan as Apollo Creed's son.

The Rocky series has had its ups and downs over the years, from the surprising Oscar success of the original film all the way back in 1976, through the cartoonish sequels to the belated Rocky Balboa, which restored some dignity to the franchise while putting a lid on it. That is until Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler came along with Creed, a sequel/spinoff/semi-remake that repackages the original Rocky and then some, bringing that beloved character back but giving us a new underdog to root for.

That hero is Adonis ‘Donnie’ Johnson, played by Coogler’s Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan. As the title may suggest, Donnie is the illegitimate son of legendary boxer Apollo Creed, born shortly after his father was killed in the ring and not too long before his mother passed on too. The film opens on a young Donnie being plucked from his latest group home by Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who adopts him and raises him in her LA mansion.

Donnie’s background is a neat spin on the rags-to-riches story that was the basis for the first Rocky. Though he begins life in a troubled way, the majority of his upbringing is very privileged, and by the time we join him in present day, he’s just had a promotion in his cushy white-collar job. Yet despite this, he still sneaks off to Tijuana every night to build up his skills in the ring, amassing an impressive record of wins in a series of unsanctioned and fairly shady boxing matches.

This is an interesting angle as Donnie’s need to fight isn’t motivated by any financial gain but instead a desire to live up to the legacy of a father he never met and has spent most of his life resenting, to build his own name and to prove his worth to the world. Donnie quits his day job and heads to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s former adversary and eventual best friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, as if you don’t know).

Rocky is completely out of the boxing game and spends his time running his restaurant, Adrian’s. He’s also completely alone, with Paulie joining Micky, Apollo and Adrian in the list of Rocky’s loved ones who have passed away, while his son has left Philadelphia to escape the shadow of his father. That’s a small detail but a good one, and one that feeds into the film’s primary themes of fathers, sons and the weight of legacy. Rocky is understandably reluctant to train Donnie but the young man is persistent, eventually persuading the retired champ to take him on as a pupil.

Rocky effectively transitions into the Micky role to help a young, hungry fighter come from nowhere and land a fight against one of the world’s best fighters. The opponent this time around is disgraced British boxer Ricky Conlon (Tony Bellew) who wants one more fight before he is sent to jail on a weapons charge. Once Donnie’s real name and lineage become public, he becomes an obvious target for anyone looking to cash in.

We don’t spend a lot of time with Conlon’s character and Bellew, a real-life pugilist, is understandably a limited actor but we see enough to know that he’s a formidable opponent which is all that’s required in this case. As Rocky continually points out, Donnie’s real opponent comes from within and that’s a conflict that the film establishes very successfully.

All of these elements, as well as a sweet romance between Donnie and his neighbour Bianca (Tessa Thompson), are familiar from most of the previous entries in the series, particularly the first film, but Coogler does a good job of using these elements in a way that feels fresh. There’s no empty fan service here and Coogler doesn’t rely on nostalgia too heavily, but when he does go there, it really works. After teasing Bill Conti’s famous “Gonna Fly Now” throughout the film, when the classic song finally hits in all its splendour, it’s an undeniably powerful, lump in the throat, fist in the air moment.

Coogler’s excellent script, co-written with Aaron Covington, is backed up superbly by his technical nous behind the camera. The in-ring action here is technically astounding with the standout sequence coming as Donnie takes on his first pro opponent and Coogler tracks him from the locker room, right out into the ring and continues to shoot the fight in one long, flowing take, putting us right in the ring with him.

It isn’t just the fights though. As Coogler showed in Fruitvale Station, he also has an eye for sensitive character moments. Watch as Donnie and Bianca lie on the floor, face to face, with their heads upside down in the frame; it’s a quietly beautiful moment. So too is the scene in which Donnie pulls up the Rocky vs. Apollo fight on Youtube and can’t resist joining the action, bathed in the light of the projector as he shadow-boxes with two legends.

In this scene – and pretty much every other one in the film – Michael B Jordan is magnetic. His physicality and athleticism is impressive but he also gives a layered, sensitive and conflicted performance outside of the ring. Between this film and Fruitvale Station, it’s clear Coogler can get the best from Jordan and the young actor displays the full range of his talents in a way no other film has allowed him to.

On the flipside of the coin, Sylvester Stallone has always been a limited actor but when he’s harnessed properly, as he is here, he can be brilliant. Stallone sinks into the role of Rocky like an old armchair, not so much acting as just being. He wears the baggage of Rocky’s life – by this point a painful one, full of loss – all over his weathered face and he wrings a lot of poignancy from the role this time around.

Where the franchise goes from here is anyone’s guess but the combination of its two young talents – one behind the camera, the other in front of it – is undeniably a winning one. Creed mines the films that came before it for material while bringing new, compelling characters into this world that we already know, in turn opening up a multitude of possibilities; here’s hoping Coogler and Jordan stick around to explore them.