It was probably unfair of me to assume Creed would be one of my favorite films of 2015 before I walked into the theater. Previously in the tragic Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan together made my favorite film of 2013. A year earlier, Jordan costarred in Chronicle, a left-field surprise that became my no-contest favorite of 2012. Prior to that, he was in season one of The Wire and thereby granted a lifetime pass for any future catastrophes beyond his control.
On the other hand, I’d only seen three of the six Rocky films — the first one as part of a successful ’90s mission to watch every Best Picture Oscar winner ever; Rocky III at the drive-in, where a furious, pre-laughingstock Mr. T frightened 10-year-old me almost to tears; and the shamelessly jingoistic yet totally engrossing Rocky IV, the only time in my life I’ve ever seen dudes in a theater jumping out of their seats and cheering and fist-pumping at all-American awesomeness overload. Yes, really. I’ve never felt the urge to keep up with the Italian Stallion since then, or to backtrack for the second one.
So in fairness, I had to allow that Creed could’ve gone either way.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Jordan is angry loner Adonis Johnson, lost son of the late heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, who was murdered in the ring by Soviet Lurch before Adonis was born. Adonis became a ward of the system after the passing of his mom/Apollo’s lover. Years into his bitter foster-home phase, Apollo’s gracious widow (Phylicia Rashad, burying her sitcom era) tracks down her husband’s love child and offers to raise him in their mansion, well away from those harsh, nasty Streets. He finishes school, he gets a nice job in the financial sector, he wears a tie, he lives the modest dream of every disenfranchised kid who’d love to escalate to boring middle-class status and live a bullet-free life.
But Adonis’ heart isn’t in it. Even without his dad around as a role model, whether because of his early circumstances or because he’s his father’s son, deep down Adonis is a fighter and he’s gotta be him. At first he’s boxing on weekends across the Mexican border as a sideline hobby; next he’s quitting his day job, disappointing Mrs. Huxtable, moving to South Philly on his generous savings, and switching career tracks from number-crunching to face-punching.
And in his mind, only one guy can teach him what he needs to know: his dad’s rival champion and best friend. Enter Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. He’s old, he’s out of the game, he’s watched his entire supporting cast die except his turtle, and he’s trying to enjoy his golden years and his remaining brain cells as a hard-working restaurateur, traded in his boxing gloves for oven mitts. But this is Michael B. Jordan asking, so good ol’ Sly says he’ll play coach this one last time. Training montages ensue, opportunities knock, there’s a woman, and there’s his early big break, a title match with British champ “Pretty Ricky” Conlan (actual boxer Tony Bellew), who has his own reasons to get in the ring for a monumental throw-down with this newbie.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The Woman is Tessa Thompson (from Veronica Mars‘ regrettable third season), singer/songwriter in a Portishead-ish bar band. Like Adonis, Bianca is pursuing a calling with a potentially limited shelf life. Unlike Adonis, she didn’t get a leg up from Mama Warbucks and had to chase her dreams the long way around.
Pretty Ricky takes orders from a trainer played by Graham McTavish, a.k.a. Dwalin from The Hobbit, a.k.a. Dwarf #2, a.k.a. the bald one. Two more vets from The Wire get a single scene apiece: Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale!) as a trainer who thinks Baby Creed needs to go do the Carlton up outta his gym; and Brian Anthony Wilson (second-string murder-police Detective Holley) for about fifteen seconds as the manager who has to accept Adonis’ resignation from the rat race.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? From start to finish, Creed is all about about the legacies we inherit whether we want them or not. It’s about father/son relationships and what to do about the lack thereof. It’s about what your family name means to others versus what your name means to you. It’s about doing what we think we’re meant to do even if no one else believes in us. It’s about how it feels to find someone who believes in us, and how much it means when we believe in them right back. As much as each of us wants to be our own person, our endless connections with others — whether we chose them or not, whether we keep them going or not — ultimately make us who we are. That’s hard for some people to accept when the connections that should be the deepest are severed. Emotional core wounds like that can have us questioning what’s the point of all this, and whether or not we’re meant to be here in the first place.
That permanent distance between Adonis and his father, even though Apollo never had the chance to choose, makes Adonis the quintessential fatherless figure. That missing puzzle piece in his makeup fuels his anger as a kid, haunts him into adulthood, and chokes him with existential doubt all the way into the final round of the final fight.
…also, the hitting parts are cool. Two of the three boxing matches are filmed as continuous single takes, maneuvering from the edge of the ring into the battlefield itself, ducking and weaving around the opponents even as they dance around each other. That fluid, you-are-there immediacy heightens the suspense in ways that real boxing has a tough time approximating without getting live cameramen accidentally pummeled. The grand finale against Conlan is edited at least as sharply as any other Rocky title bout, capturing the old-school dramatic flair of the series’ trademark brutal duels.
Meanwhile in the background, oldster Rocky is very oldster. The student/mentor relationship takes time to nourish and to grow into full-blown friendship, at which point Rocky finds he has a challenge of his own to face down. As the former warrior who’s just plain tired and swears he’s done with fights, Stallone pulls off the subtlest, tenderest acting I’ve ever seen from him, the years and wrinkles weighing on his doughy face as he ponders his options, takes his chances, and tries to counter Adonis’ rebuttals and encouragement alike.
Nitpicking? Some boxing-movie cliches never die, including but not limited to the requisite thirty-second press conference before the main event, in which the opponents go to all the trouble of traveling out to a televised Q&A where they don’t last more than three questions before they’re ready to skip the match and tear into each other right then and there. And just like that, the conference ends extra-early and everyone wonders why they wasted all that gas for a several-second get-together.
For those who disdain rah-rah montages where hometowns show love for their heroes, a scene involving motorcycles and happy wheelies may have you laughing instead of cheering. And while there’s one grueling, slow-motion punch in particular that has the entire audience wincing and feeling the recipient’s pain, I do wish the final, final punch were more of a haymaker-to-end-all-haymakers instead of a realistic, non-flashy, non-slo-mo roundhouse punch. Or maybe it was an uppercut. If I could tell it would be the last punch before the last bell, I might’ve taken better notice.
So what’s to like? As someone who grew up without an in-person male role model, who had thoughts on paternal abandonment, and who struggled with roles and purpose for too many decades, I’ll admit Creed tagged me hard in the emotion bone. Jordan once again ups his acting game — both in the ring when it’s time for steely eyes and war games, and when he’s bouncing off the friends and family who don’t always understand him but stay in his corner when he needs them most. At surface level it’s a traditionally fierce sports flick that invites audience engagement like any PPV extravaganza except even better for non-sports fans like me, but Jordan and Coogler go many levels further, peeling back the surface to bare the soul of a talented young man who wants to do something that means a lot to him because he hopes that it’ll help him mean something.
Like I said, maybe it was unfair to assume, pretty much from the first trailer, that Creed would be one of my favorite films of 2015. I was right, but it was still unfair.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Creed end credits, but I was relieved to verify at least some of the Philadelphia scenes actually were filmed in Pennsylvania, one of three states whose giant “PLEASE COME MAKE MOVIES HERE” logos stick out at various points in those credits.