Editor’s Notes: Creed is currently out in wide theatrical release.
Four decades ago, Rocky, a modestly budgeted boxing film, as gritty, naturalistic, and realistic (within genre conventions, of course) as anything made during Hollywood’s Second Golden Age of auteur filmmaking. Rocky went on to make back its budget by a factor of 225 and, true to its underdog protagonist, win the Academy Award for Best Picture over Network, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Bound for Glory. The story behind the story – of a struggling actor, Sylvester Stallone, writing the screenplay and starring as the title character – was just as compelling as the working-class, monosyllabic club fighter, Rocky Balboa, who overcomes all manner of odds and obstacles to battle the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), to a near-draw and even more importantly, a moral victory (boxing entries either end with an actual win by hard-fought decision or desperate knockout, a moral victor/loss, or tragedy/death for the hero). Rocky became, however briefly, an embodiment of American idealism and virtue, of the common man triumphant, albeit as the “Great White Hope” (racism as text, not subtext).
While Jordan’s star-making performance certainly deserves to be singled out, the acclaim shouldn’t stop there.
A series of sequels, beginning with Rocky II in 1979 (Rocky defeats Apollo in a rematch), Rocky III in 1982 (Rocky loses, then re-wins the heavyweight tittle against the fearsomely named Clubber Lang [Mr. T], with Apollo relinquishing his role as foe and opponent to become Rocky’s friend and trainer), Rocky IV in 1985 (Rocky transformed into an oiled up, hypertrophied example of Reagan-era America/foreign policy, with Apollo losing his life to a hulking, cartoonish Russian opponent, the living, breathing personification of the “evil empire”), Rocky V in 1990 (the series’ regrettable nadir, with a brain-damaged Rocky turned mentor/trainer to an ungrateful protégé), and Rocky Balboa in 2006 (a middle-aged, out-of-shape Rocky, now a restaurant owner and widower, comes out of retirement for one more, last fight, unsurprisingly proving himself the equal of his much younger opponent), ending the series on a relative high note while implicitly, maybe inadvertently, embracing the idea that time defeats even the greatest of athletes, a rarity in the typically one-and-done genre.
For writer-director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), however, there was still one more Rocky-related story to tell, one where a retired Rocky takes on the role of mentor and surrogate father to Apollo’s son, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). The central character we meet in Creed comes from two, vastly different worlds, one defined by deprivation, poverty, and hopelessness (a prison-like juvenile detention center), and the other by wealth, status, and security (his adopted mother’s, Apollo’s widow). While the first world haunts him, along with his illegitimacy (the unacknowledged, possibly unwanted son of a popular heavyweight champion), into adulthood, the second feels alien and remote to him, largely because he doesn’t feel it’s a life he earned or even deserves. He’s also haunted by his father’s shadow, legacy, and untimely death, a sense that he can’t truly find himself or his identity until he pursues a title in the ring. Even with a gaudy 15-0 record – albeit obtained through no-profile fights on the other side of the U.S.-Mexican border – no one in LA, however, will train him, an apparent bias against his inherited wealth and social status, ultimately compelling Creed to leave LA for the more hospitable environs of Philadelphia.
Rocky’s titular theme song also makes an appearance, initially in fragments or layered into Ludwig Göransson’s score, but later far more fully, mixing old and new, appropriately reflecting the triumphant arc of Creed’s story.
Creed might have the drive, enthusiasm, and energy of a future champion, but he doesn’t have the skills or the experience – at least not yet – to become a champion. Coogler indulges his inner love of emotion-engaging, emotion-elevating training montages, a sign – one among many – that he fully understands the conventions he’s willingly, unironically, and it should be added, refreshingly embracing. Following the template laid out by the first and best Rocky film, Creed throws a myriad of obstacles in the title character’s way, from his own stubbornness, pride, and self-doubt, to his inexperience in the ring, a problem that Coogler semi-magically waves away by having Creed, outed as Apollo’s biological son, accepting a title fight against the light-heavyweight champion, ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), partially as a stunt and big-money payday (Conlan faces a lengthy stretch in prison for gun charges), but also (extra- and meta-textually) as a deliberate mirroring of how Rocky, an unremarkable, undistinguished club fighter, obtained his unlikely shot at the heavyweight title the first film, a marketing gimmick to promote Apollo’s bicentennial beneficence.
How Creed gets his shot at the light-heavyweight title may be just as contrived, but it also resets the film’s dynamics, turning Creed into the kind of root-worthy underdog moviegoers instinctively embrace. That Creed otherwise hews closely to naturalistic motivations for its title character and not just simplistic, reductive explanations helps to elevate what otherwise could have been generic, derivative material. While Jordan’s star-making performance certainly deserves to be singled out, the acclaim shouldn’t stop there. Stallone gives a subtle, nuanced performance weighted by personal losses more than professional losses while Tessa Thompson, a singer, songwriter, and actress who broke through in last year’s Dear White People, takes the obligatory romantic interest and gives her complexities and contradictions of her own. Thompson also co-wrote several trip-hop-inspired songs on the soundtrack, adding a hip, contemporary flavor to Creed. Rocky’s titular theme song also makes an appearance, initially in fragments or layered into Ludwig Göransson’s score, but later far more fully, mixing old and new, appropriately reflecting the triumphant arc of Creed’s story.
How Creed gets his shot at the title may be just as contrived, but it also resets the film’s dynamics, making Creed an overwhelming underdog, exactly the kind of overwhelming underdog moviegoers, in their infinite wisdom, not to mention empathetic connection, repeatedly embrace. That Creed otherwise hews closely to naturalistic motivations for its title character and not just simplistic, reductive explanations helps to elevate what otherwise could have been generic, derivative material.