Passing the torch is a tricky business in film franchises. We've seen lots of attempts over the past few years as big movies have turned into big series of movies with higher and higher numbers of sequels. Some of these transitions have been successful and some less so, including "Star Wars" and "Terminator" this past year alone. "Creed" is the best possible version of this kind of story that I think I've ever seen, and I'm glad that it's brought some new vitality to a franchise that's often been forgotten or underestimated in the superhero age: the "Rocky" movies.
Keep in mind that in spite of all the history it builds on, "Creed" does not require that the audience be familiar with "Rocky" or its numerous sequels. It contains plenty of material that will appeal to a "Rocky" fan, but the story doesn't rely on nostalgia or the goodwill of its audience the way that the latest "Star Wars" often does. "Creed" is absolutely its own movie, with a hero who faces different challenges than his predecessors. It's not just a good "Rocky" movie, but a good movie period, and on a level that we haven't seen since the very first installment in 1976. The bulk of the credit should go to Ryan Coogler, who directed and co-wrote the script with Aaron Covington. And then there's the cast, lead by Michael B. Jordan as the new kid with a lot to prove, and Sylvester Stallone giving his best performance in years.
Jordan plays Donnie Johnson, who was born Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of former boxing heavyweight champ Apollo Creed. Rescued from the system and raised to adulthood by Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Donnie's long been dissuaded from following in Apollo's footsteps, but he's drawn toward the ring anyway. Finding the boxing scene in Los Angeles too familiar with his family, he goes to Philadelphia, hoping to train with Apollo's old friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone). However, Rocky left the ring behind long ago and isn't keen on returning. Donnie works on getting him to reconsider, determined to escape from his father's shadow. He also finds a love connection with his new neighbor, a local singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson).
"Creed" does an exceptionally good job of balancing all the expectations that have been thrust upon it. Yes, it's definitely part of the "Rocky" franchise and mines the archives for good material, but it also distances itself from the previous films in the right ways. There are training montages and exciting fight sequences, but they aren't recreations of the iconic moments from "Rocky." The famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art do make an appearance, but Michael B. Jordan doesn't bound up them to the strains of the "Gonna Fly Now." Instead, Ryan Coogler gives Donnie his own moments, tailored to his character, including a dynamite boxing match sequence done entirely in a single shot. We spend a good amount of time with Rocky, who gets his own, heartbreaking new battles to fight, but this is Adonis Creed's movie, and Coogler never forgets that.
I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a boxing movie so much, and this is absolutely an old-fashioned boxing movie. Donnie is a great underdog figure, determined to make his own name for himself, and eager to shed his status as a newcomer and a child of privilege. Michael B. Jordan has the physicality, the attitude, and the heart to really sell the boxing. You can see him constantly in conflict, even when he's not throwing punches. Out of the ring he's even better. The romantic subplot with an excellent Tessa Thompson isn't quite up there with Rocky and Adrian, but it's got all the depth and the heft it should. Jordan is especially well paired with Sylvester Stallone, and the two of them share some really touching scenes together that I wasn't expecting. You can see that Stallone really relishes the opportunity to tackle a real dramatic role.
Best of all, I love that "Creed" stays so grounded in the real world. It's a love letter to Philadelphia in a lot of ways, always including bits of street culture and roaming through its less picturesque neighborhoods. Coogler and Jordan last teamed up for "Fruitvale Station," and took a similar approach with Oakland. It's another example of how "Creed" figured out how to go back to "Rocky's" roots in spirit, to wonderful effect. I've seen so many other reboots and retreads that simply can't figure out how to recapture appeal of their original material the way that "Creed" does. And Coogler makes it look so easy.
I'm not saying I want to see "Creed" II-IV, but I think Donnie needs a rematch with some Russians, don't you?