After six movies there didn’t feel like there was much left to say about Rocky Balboa. We’ve seen his humble beginnings, greatest heights, and recent struggles with waning relevance. Following 2006’s modestly received Rocky Balboa no one was really waiting for Rocky VII. But in ceding the ring to the next generation, Creed has found a new story to tell about Balboa. And the result might be the best film in the franchise.
Creed shifts focus away from the indomitable spirit of Rocky Balboa and instead follows the story of Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the son of Rocky’s close friend/foe/trainer/trainee Apollo Creed. Donnie’s story mirrors Rocky’s remarkably well, though at an accelerated rate. Like the original 1976 version of Rocky, Donnie comes from difficult beginnings and looks to make a name for himself. Soon he learns about his father and finds himself living the life of luxury. In 1982 Rocky had reached similar levels of comfort in Rocky III. In that movie Clubber Lang challenged Rocky just as a local fighter challenges Donnie this time around. Both challengers claim that a pampered life has made our lead characters soft. Donnie eventually rejects his new-found riches and moves to Philadelphia to train (much like Rocky in the Rocky IV wilderness training montages. No offense Philadelphia). From here the film follows familiar checkpoints from the original Rocky but with refreshed spirit.
As Donnie, Michael B. Jordan continues his fantastic run of recent films. Ever since his work in The Wire he has owned a remarkable screen presence. His lauded work in Fruitvale Station (directed by Ryan Coogler who also directs Creed) helped cement his continued consideration for excellent roles. Even the flaming mess of Fantastic Four doesn’t look like it will cool his ascent. Jordan works perfectly as the lead in Creed. He holds the screen well against Stallone and helps provide a balance between leads which the Rocky series hasn’t seen for some time (maybe not since Rocky and Apollo in Rocky II).
Sylvester Stallone delivers one of his strongest and most nuanced performances in the franchise if not his career. Like Donnie, we find Rocky struggling with his own identity issues, namely his fading glory and the loss of loved ones. Stallone’s gruff and grumbling mannerisms show a Rocky who mourns the losses of so many friends and loved ones including his trainer Micky, friends Apollo and Paulie, his estranged son, and most importantly his wife Adrian whose grave he still visits while he reads the daily newspaper.
Beyond those losses the now elderly Rocky must come to terms with his fading connection to the world around him. Donnie and the audience first meet Rocky in the old champion’s Philadelphia restaurant named after his late wife Adrian. The walls of the eatery are covered with mementos of the past including a photograph of one of Apollo and Rocky’s fights which draws Donnie’s eye. Outside this physical embodiment of the past, Rocky is constantly reminded of his past feats. Old friends and new strangers greet him as “Champ” and his status seems to give him unfettered access to the city. These changes are jokingly hinted at by Donnie who teases Rocky for his unfamiliarity with slang and cellphones. In the past we’ve watched Rocky slowly lose connection to a city with which he is so clearly identified. But in Creed those changes are painfully obvious and used to great effect with Donnie sharing the screen.
Films have explored themes of identity and aging many times. One of the best (or at least my favorite) narrative pairings joins a young lead looking to achieve something with an older foil whose accomplishments are in the past which leads to struggles with waxing relevance. Boxing films can frame this dynamic perfectly by featuring an up-and-coming fighter with an older trainer (Creed actually fully fleshes out this duo by having Rocky play the washed-up champion. Most films, including this year’s Southpaw, don’t emphasize the older trainer’s successes). Other genres use these characters as well either as the central plot line (Finding Forrester comes to mind) or as part of a greater story (like Luke and Yoda or even Harry Potter and Dumbledore to some extent). One of the problems with utilizing this structure for an entire film is the risk of under-developing other characters. Creed does develop a third character in Bianca (played by an excellent Tessa Thompson) but suffers with its scant treatment of other supporting cast members. This is most apparent in Donnie’s final opponent. The first four Rocky films succeeded partly (if not mainly) by developing a counterpart which forces Rocky to struggle. Instead of making a new Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago, Creed focuses instead on its central trio. That’s a fair choice given its 133 minute run-time and how much Donnie and Rocky develop in that time (plus the requisite final fight scene which demands a sizable chunk of screen time). And I wouldn’t want to take any screen time away from Stallone or Jordan whose performances do more than enough to reinvigorate this already storied franchise.