Right away, Ryan Coogler lets us know that we’re in good and special hands with Creed, his Rocky spinoff that arrives with not only the complete blessing of series creator Sylvester Stallone, but also with his quietly mesmerizing appearance as Rocky Balboa, the long-past-his-prime champion boxer living out the rest of his days in a fortress of solitude. I’ll get to Rocky in a moment, though.
Audiences need to appreciate the fact that Creed is not a Rocky knockoff, although Coogler pulls a neat trick on us by unabashedly stealing nearly every beat from Rocky’s early mythology — his unlikely underdog rise to glory. Creed is the name on the marquee, but the real name of the protagonist is Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of legendary world-champion boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), epic foe-turned-friend to Balboa. Every Rocky fan worth lacing up their gloves in this heavyweight class knows that Apollo died in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in Rocky IV. We also fondly wonder about that unseen clash between the two friends hinted at in the final moments of Rocky III.
Coogler is an obvious fan of these moments too, but he’s far more invested and engaged with Adonis, who we see early on as a kid in juvenile detention with a chip on his shoulder (Apollo died before Adonis was born). He’s a scrappy fighter, bouncing around the foster care system, but he’s smart, and although the movie, thankfully, never says it, he’s got a hunger in his eyes (you know, the whole “Eye of the Tiger” vibe). He gets a lifeline from Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the wife of Apollo, who tracks Adonis down and takes him in, despite the boy representing her beloved husband’s infidelity. She wants him to live without having to fight to survive or prove himself.
But, of course, that is all Adonis wants: to fight. And he’s pretty good. A self-taught brash bruiser with a god-like body, Adonis is very likely just like his father. It is easy to imagine Apollo, before the preening and diva-like showboating, hustling and eagerly throwing punches in bunches, just like Adonis.
There is a very natural force at play drawing Adonis to Philadelphia to seek out Rocky, the man who fought — losing and then winning — and bonded with Apollo. And it is no surprise that Rocky will come to see Adonis as the son he longed for, while Adonis will affectionately call him “Unc,” although it’s a father figure he seeks and finds in Balboa.
What makes this all so much more special is the intimate ease Coogler employs in the emotional and psychological construction of the narrative. I said at the start that he shamelessly borrows all of the major beats from Rocky’s beginnings, re-fashioning them here to fit Adonis. He struggles to find a place for himself in Philly, meets his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), soon to be his love interest, and winds up getting the break of a lifetime, one that he can’t quite deserve but you know he will eventually earn. There are anticipated complications that in less capable hands would put even the most stalwart Rocky fans to sleep.
But Jordan, Thompson and Stallone don’t just sell every scene; they live and breathe in them. At times, despite the familiarity we have with these faces, we can forget that we know Jordan from Fruitvale Station (his previous effort with Coogler) or Stallone from the previous Rocky installments. We surrender to Adonis and Rocky, two men hanging onto each other, pulling each other along one day at a time. This movie is their time, their first fight together.
And speaking of first fights, Coogler proves to be a whiz, staging Adonis’ first real fight with Rocky in his corner as a technical dance. The first round is one uncut event that sets a new standard for boxing choreography. The movement and sound mixing has us bobbing and weaving next to the fighters.
Creed certainly looks like a reboot-spinoff, but without the crass cash-grab feeling we’ve come to expect from such fare. Don’t call it a franchise comeback, because Creed is something else altogether. It is an idea that has been around for years, just done in a way that allows it to live up to the potential we’ve always assumed from projects like this. Creed is the humble beginning of a truly special character. (Opens wide Wednesday) (PG-13) Grade: A