A third of the way through Creed, up-and-coming-boxer Adonis “Hollywood” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) steps into the ring against an undefeated opponent, and writer/director Ryan Coogler’s camera assumes a position directly in the center of the squared circle, bobbing and weaving in and around its pugilists as they fight through not one round, but a second as well—all of it captured in a masterful single take. A moment of rousing, jaw-dropping directorial virtuosity, it’s the point at which this sequel-cum-reboot fully channels the larger-than-life spirit of its predecessors, delivering dazzling aesthetic and dramatic thrills with a fleetness and ferocity that’s nothing short of rousing.
If only the rest of the action were up to that showcase sequence’s challenge. Creed is the movie that Rocky fans have been waiting for—and by that, I mean fans of the original 1976 Rocky (and, also, the few people who tricked themselves into tolerating 2006’s Rocky Balboa). Embracing the gritty up-from-your-bootstraps fantasy of Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning breakthrough film, it’s a calculated throwback to a time before Rocky was synonymous with outsized sequels, steroidal bodies, and exaggerated heroics. In other words, it’s a stirring fable that lands all of its underdog-makes-good punches, even as the “roots” to which it returns are the very mannered working-class tropes and formulas that that the series wisely discarded for its greatest entries, 1982’s Rocky III and 1985’s Rocky IV.
There have always been two Sylvester Stallones—the first one who made his name embodying the Italian Stallion (and John Rambo) as everymen overcoming obstacles and enduring hardships on the path to triumph (and/or recovery), and the second one who transformed those average-Joe characters into comic-book superheroes who personified a might-is-right ethos. It’s the latter Stallone, who also created indelible ’80s He-Men in Cobra, Over the Top, and Lock Up, that proved to be one of the eras defining macho icons. And in Rocky III and IV, his battles against Mr. T’s vicious Clubber Lang and Dolph Lundgren’s juicing Ruskie Ivan Drago reached cornball-mythos levels, in large part because Stallone dispensed with the first two Rocky movies’ “realism” pretenses and wholeheartedly embraced the character’s—and his own—hunger for legendary status.
As Stallone’s ass-kicking star dimmed in the ’90s and aughts, he intermittently sought to remake himself as the “serious” actor of his initial efforts, leading to vehicles (1997’s Cop Land, Rocky Balboa) that saw him re-embracing his slumped-shoulders, how-you-doin’ southside-Philly schtick. And schtick it was, a combination of affectations that were far removed from both who Stallone really was (a Hollywood mogul) and who his on-screen persona had become (a musclebound cartoon). Viewers recognized that Stallone was only “genuine” when he was arm-wrestling behemoths and rescuing women from kidnappers at high altitudes (see: 1993’s excellent Cliffhanger). So it’s no surprise that his prime method of re-entering the spotlight over the past few years has been via his The Expendables series, a wantonly self-aware ode to his own kill-first, ask-questions-never heyday.
In Creed, Stallone again courts respectability as a more grizzled, broken-down Rocky who’s now living out his days in relative anonymity as the owner of a local Philly restaurant, Adrian’s, named after his beloved deceased wife. And in a handful of late scenes, the actor touchingly exudes a soulful despondence born from being the last man standing in his own life. Nonetheless, despite that misery, he’s brought back to life and taught to fight again by the film’s actual protagonist, Adonis. Left to scrap and claw his way through the juvenile foster care system after the death of his father Apollo Creed (in Rocky IV) as well as his mother, Adonis was saved from a hard-knock life by Apollo’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who took him in to her gilded-mansion home and gave him an opportunity to make something of himself.
Despite his affluent upbringing, Adonis is an angry young man who rejects Apollo’s famous surname because of his still-seething rage over his father’s abandonment. In that respect, Creed naturally embeds its tale amidst larger, credible socio-cultural dynamics. That said, the notion that Adonis vents his anger through underground boxing matches in Mexico—and chooses to ditch his corporate job so he can trade punches in the ring full-time—is a far less believable turn of events. But Coogler’s film isn’t about verité authenticity. Rather, it’s about following through on the fairy tale conventions established by its Rocky ancestors. Soon, Creed is heading to Philly to convince a reluctant Rocky to be his very own corner-man-Mickey, thus setting in motion a drama that’s marked by standard training montages, a romance with a beautiful local girl (Tessa Thompson’s blandly supportive singer Bianca), and a third-act mortality scare for Rocky that threatens to tip the proceedings into full-on Rocky III mimicry.
If only it had. Perhaps then Creed wouldn’t feel quite so pedestrian for so much of its prolonged 133-minute runtime. Rocky tells Creed that his greatest opponent is himself, but the narrative takes that notion to such heart that it never creates the type of ultra-formidable foe for its main character that Rocky had in Apollo, Clubber Lang, and Drago. Despite having only one pro bout on his resume, Creed is quickly given a title shot against the reigning champion, Liverpool badass Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). But Conlan is a relatively featureless and feeble adversary, and his lack of personality—and stature, or relationship to Creed—drains the climax of considerable excitement. That Coogler then concludes things on a note photocopied from Rocky doesn’t help the film’s originality shortcomings, and after the preceding shout-outs to Stallone’s original go-rounds (from chicken-catching exercises and egg-centric meals to trips to the famed Philadelphia Museum of Art steps), the finale further suggests that we also know how Creed II will likely end as well.
Coogler’s expert long takes and use of slow-motion give the proceedings a visual jolt, and Stallone (suitably crusty and world-weary) and Jordan (all fury and resentment) fulfill their roles as kindred warriors fighting their way out of self-created prisons. Unfortunately, his story is so beholden to its Rocky legacy that it never feels like more than a barely updated spin on musty material. By the time Bill Conti’s famous theme music blares from the soundtrack during the last round of Creed’s showdown with Conlan, it’s hard not to feel a rush of nostalgic exhilaration. Yet for a film about a man looking to carve out his own identity while simultaneously embracing his heritage, Creed delivers predictable uplift but, ultimately, fails to make a unique name for itself.