There are a number of ways you can read Creed as a movie. First of all there’s the cynical view that movie producers were looking for a way to capitalize on a vaunted Hollywood name – in this case, Rocky – in order to make box office money without really trying. Then there’s the view that Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station collaborator Michael B. Jordan were trying to create a simple story about testing the limits of one’s capability and family legacy out of the whole cloth of Rocky’s history. But there’s also a third reading of Creed, what if it’s a movie about filmmakers trying to use the comfort of nostalgia and familiarity to deconstruct the Rocky mythos.
That all sounds a little “film class,” but it’s easy to say that there’s a lot more going on in creating this movie about Old Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) mentoring the Young Creed (Jordan) than Hollywood’s IP-obsessed mentality. For one thing, if Coogler and co-screenwriter Aaron Covington were selling out, there probably would have been more “buddy cop” humor between Creed and Rocky, a lot of, “Hey, I’m young and you’re old!” jokes that would have formed the entire basis of their relationship. Of course, that’s part of the charm, Rocky misunderstanding the modern secondary definition of “the cloud” for example, but the whole movie’s not like that.
Really though, Creed is a tale that a lot of young men can relate to, the search for a father figure. Donnie Johnson is the youngest son of Apollo Creed, born after his father’s death in Rocky IV to a woman Apollo had an affair with. Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) adopts Donnie, and gives him a good home, but Donnie the successful banker still wonders about Apollo the heavyweight champion boxer. In other words, he’s spoiling for a fight, and he makes his way to Philadelphia to learn from Rocky to find out how to be a fighter, and Rocky reluctantly accepts taking on Donnie as a protege.
It terms of Rocky movies, or even sports movies really, Creed doesn’t radically reinvent the wheel. You get your training montages, your wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, and your personal struggles encroaching on the pursuit for professional excellence. After all, it’s a Rocky movie, even if it’s called Creed. But there is a different flavor to the film that goes beyond subbing an old boxer for another one, where as Rocky was essentially about the class struggle to make yourself something when you come from nothing, Creed is about overcoming your supposed advantages in order to become your own man.
It’s also about unraveling mythology. A good myth tells how the hero achieved his greatest triumph and the work he or she put in to get there, but rarely does a myth show our hero in their declining years. Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the Rocky series addressed that too, but it was also about the hero, Rocky, enjoying one last victory. The Rocky we meet in Creed thinks his life is behind, and he’s just going through the motions. His reluctance to take on Donnie as a trainee is tempered by the slim hope that he still has something left to offer, that he can make a new family, and that he still owes a debt to Apollo for not throwing in the towel all those years ago.
It’s not a spoiler to say, as it’s revealed in the trailer, that Rocky also suffers a serious illness in the course of the movie. A lot of respect has to go out to Stallone, not just for entrusting his beloved character to the hands of Coogler, but for being willing to show Rocky so vulnerable and broken. It’s an obvious statement, but still a powerful one, to say that the toughest fights sometimes have nothing to do with punching someone hard, and Coogler shows battling cancer in all its struggle and ugliness. For viewers with a strong attachment to the character, seeing Rocky take up that fight against cancer will undoubtedly be left emotionally raw.
Jordon deserves a lot of credit too for make his Creed a complex character, not simply motivated by vanity to live up to the name of his father, but also portraying a man trying to struggle to find his own identity between the ones that want him to embrace his legacy and the ones that don’t. Ego plays into it, sure, but Jordan as Donnie walks a fine line between the angry tough guy and the underdog trying to scrape out his place in the world. He’s also got great chemistry with Stallone, and they develop a real rapport that allows them to challenge each other in the dramatically tense moments, and enjoy a few good one liners together.
The emphasis on Donnie and Rocky works best because they’re easily the most developed characters. Tessa Thompson is fine as Donnie’s love interest, a singer named Bianca who’s slowly losing her hearing. It’s a thankless role, but Thompson is charming enough in it even if the movie kind of forgets about her in the final 45 minutes. Tony Bellew as Donnie’s eventual opponent “Pretty” Ricky Conlan is emblematic of the problem with all the other boxers we meet in the film as they are egomaniacal jerks covered in tattoos and too much self-esteem, making you wonder why someone like Donnie would get involved in the sport in the first place. Of course given what happened earlier this year with Mayweather Vs. Pacquiao, we don’t need a movie to tell us that boxing’s seen better days.
Creed though remains relentlessly optimistic about the capacity of boxing as way for a man to find himself, test himself, and come out the better in the end thanks to corny, if not cliched, notions like “the greatest opponent is yourself.” Corny though it may be, it still works, and Coogler does enough work to remix the beats so that the story feels modern and fresh. Creed stands proudly in two worlds as a lovingly made coda to the Rocky legacy, and as a separate legend in the making, dramatically accomplished and energetic in its own right. Creed may not be a technical knock-out, but Coogler, Jordan and Stallone definitely earn their points.