Anyone who’s ever seen a Rocky movie will know what to expect from Creed, the seventh entry in the “underdog boxing hero makes good” series. Coming 39 years after the original film starring Sylvester Stallone, the movie certainly has its share of training montages and struggles against adversity, as well as an endearing romance between a young fighter and a woman from the neighborhood. But Creed is also necessarily fresh, giving beneficial tweaks to an old formula. Audiences will still likely see every punch coming from a mile away, but what’s remarkable is how the movie lands them all: It’s an invigorating piece of nostalgia that fuels a bigger adrenaline rush with its climax than any big-budget blockbuster could provide.
It’s worth remembering that the original Rocky is a great film, both overshadowed and enhanced by its bombastic sequels. While later films saw the lovable Philadelphian Rocky Balboa fight Mr. T, conquer the Soviet Union, and own a talking robot, the first movie is a touching character study of a mumbling, distant, sweet-natured guy who gets an unprecedented shot at fame. Creed revives that character, giving Stallone his best part in decades as the retired champ, now puttering away in an Italian restaurant he owns. But it wisely invests most of its running time in its compelling new protagonist, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, playing the son of Rocky’s deceased rival Apollo), and in giving the old rags-to-riches story a clever spin.
Adonis (or “Don”) is the forgotten son of a superstar whose mother died at a young age. The film introduces him as a kid brawling with other boys in juvie before he’s taken in by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad). While Rocky strived to escape the drudgery of life as a local unknown, Adonis has a cushy-looking white-collar job, which doesn’t stop him from feeling drawn to the world of boxing by the memory of his father, killed in the ring in Rocky IV before he was born. That leads him to Philadelphia, where he connects with his dad’s greatest rival and eventual friend, and, well, you can guess the rest.
It’s a heady embrace of what’s come before, but Jordan and the director Ryan Coogler (who scripted with Aaron Covington) infuse it with the visual energy and real-world grit the Rocky series has lacked since the first film. Adonis’s first fight is performed in one bravura take, Coogler’s camera dipping in and around the action with confidence. Jordan invests his performance with notes of suppressed rage and dopey charm. He creates the kind of real-world tough guy Stallone did so well in 1976, tapping into the magnetic star presence he showed in Coogler’s previous film, Fruitvale Station.
That film, Coogler’s debut, was a retelling of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before he was shot dead, unarmed, by police in an Oakland subway station—a tragedy reflective of the dangers many young African American men face. Compared to that, Creed is a work of escapist fantasy. But Coogler and Jordan nonetheless create a protagonist of color who avoids the stereotypes of many of Hollywood’s black heroes while still being celebrated as one. Adonis is an easy hero for everyone to cheer for, but he’s not thinly painted. Scenes where he runs through Philadelphia followed by cheering kids on bikes are especially memorable—they celebrate the film’s myth-making without putting the hero on an unreachable pedestal.
Along with that, Coogler has crafted an homage to the Rocky series with authentic affection, referencing many of the greatest and corniest moments—chasing chickens in the backyard, Rocky and Apollo’s secret final fight. At the same time, Creed transcends every one of the franchise’s sequels. Notably, it’s the first Rocky film without Stallone’s name on the script, but he shines instead in his quiet, nuanced supporting turn as the aging fighter.
Stallone has never been the most versatile actor, but he layers his original performance with the steeliness that comes with encroaching mortality. As a career performance, it doesn’t feel far off from Clint Eastwood’s turn in Million Dollar Baby: After years of playing hard men, both finally get to embrace the youthful energy of their onscreen protégé. And in sidestepping many of the pitfalls that come with continuing a beloved franchise, the film invites viewers to revel in the old glory days without simply trying to recreate them. It might be obvious when the horns are about to blare, but it’s thrilling nonetheless.