In 1976, Sylvester Stallone scripted an underdog tale whose critical & commercial success emulated its very own story, for Rocky was hailed by viewers & critics alike as the perfect exemplification of the American dream and turned Stallone into a star overnight. It was then followed by four more sequels in the next two decades which had the burning desire of the original but lacked the proper execution, resulting in quality slump for the franchise that slowly faded into oblivion. However, in 2006, Stallone decided to bring Rocky back for one final round and delivered a memorable finale with Rocky Balboa. It had everything that made the original such an enduring classic plus it also concluded the whole saga on an ideal note, something this cultural icon always deserved.
Now Creed at first felt like a misstep after the journey of Rocky Balboa was brought to a respectable conclusion by Stallone himself in the final instalment. But director Ryan Coogler has pulled off something rare in this era of sequels, prequels, remakes & spin-offs, for Creed arrives as the surprise package of this year and is an underdog story for the ages that treats the legacy of Rocky with utmost respect yet manages to carve its own identity in the process, thus working as that cinematic moment where the baton is passed from the old to the new. Add to that, its reception highly mirrors what Stallone’s breakthrough film did at its time of release. Creed is every bit about what Rocky stood for, is a perfect homage to that quintessential sports drama, and has the same old blood flowing, albeit in a new body.
A spin-off from the original Rocky series, Creed tells the story of Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate child of the deceased boxer Apollo Creed who has a knack for fighting and wants to become a professional boxer. Struggling with his identity all his life, he decides to quit his job in order to pursue his dreams but is turned down by an elite boxing academy, following which he moves to Philadelphia in order to get in touch with his father’s old friend & rival Rocky Balboa, hoping to coerce the boxing legend to become his trainer. Refusing him at first, Rocky eventually decides to mentor the kid but when word gets out about Adonis’ relation to Apollo Creed, he gets an unexpected title shot at the world light heavyweight championship provided he changes his last name to Creed, and thus gains the opportunity to step out of his father’s shadow.
Co-written & directed by Ryan Coogler who made his breakthrough a couple of years ago with Fruitvale Station, Creed is only his sophomore effort yet it’s a huge leap for this new & promising talent, for Coogler takes a very risky route by attempting to script the next chapter of a beloved franchise but it all works out amazingly well in the end, thanks to his decision to take the plot into a different direction without deviating from the franchise’s roots. The script is just as accomplished as his direction as all the relevant characters are brilliantly fleshed out, each having his own set of issues while the arc of Rocky Balboa is handled with great care as Coogler upgrades his role to a mentor while also making him confront his own mortality. As the plot progresses, a number of parallels emerge between Creed & Rocky yet Coogler’s film is entirely his own.
The technical aspects are expertly executed and there are plenty of moments that manage to evoke nothing but admiration from its audience. With majority of its plot unfolding in Philadelphia, the street culture & notable landmarks are sensibly incorporated into the picture. Cinematography is undeniably impressive as the camera moves around with kinetic frenzy during the boxing sequences and is restrained & focused in the dramatic moments but the highlight turns out to be a boxing match in the middle of the movie that is filmed entirely in one continuous take. Editing keeps the plot tightly-knitted, provides enough screen time to each character, and its 133 minutes runtime is steadily paced. The background score does include a couple of memorable tracks from the original series but the soundtrack is mostly an original composition that signifies the heading into a new era.
Coming to the performances, Creed features a devoted cast in Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad & Tonny Bellew, and every one of them delivers the goods. Jordan continues to strengthen his acting résumé with another fantastic performance as Adonis and does a fantastic job in carrying the whole film on his shoulders. Supporting him on the exact same level is Stallone who reprises his signature role of Rocky Balboa and it’s been a while since we’ve seen the ageing actor deliver such an emotionally resonant performance, for he pretty much steals the show. Thompson plays the love interest of Adonis but her character isn’t devoid of depth, thus making her a more relevant figure than just a caricature. Rashad plays Apollo Creed’s widow who adopted Johnson when he was a kid while Bellew is in as the world light heavyweight champion who decides to make Adonis his final challenger.
On an overall scale, Creed is an absolute knockout that borrows the right ingredients from its predecessors, knows where exactly to draw the line, successfully steers the franchise into a new direction, and manages to be just as rewarding for newcomers as it is for fans of the original series. The training sequences & boxing matches brim with adrenaline-rush & testosterone-fuelled excitement but the best thing about Creed is the mentor-disciple bond between Adonis & Rocky, for it is the core element that makes this movie work on so many levels. Solely on the strength of Coogler’s script, Stallone risked passing the torch of the franchise that defined his career to a new filmmaker looking to build his own legacy, but Coogler does remarkably well to justify that it was the right thing to do. With precise understanding of what Rocky was all about, Creed perfectly recycles its source material for today’s generation of filmgoing audience and is one of the best films of the year, one of the best sports drama in recent memory & quite possibly the best start to a spin-off series we’ve ever had in cinema before. Definitely, delightfully & very highly recommended.