Creed

I've never liked Rocky IV as much as a lot of people seem to, and one of the primary reasons is that I objected to the way that film killed off Apollo Creed for the sake of a fairly cheap dramatic jolt. It's a weak finish to what had been a compelling character arc (Apollo began the series as Rocky's swaggering opponent, but the two had become inseparable friends by the end of Rocky III). However, Ryan Coogler's Creed – the seventh film in the Rocky franchise, but the first one without Rocky's name in the title – takes that questionable bit of narrative and uses it as the emotional foundation for a tremendous new film. This isn't just a terrific sequel... it's the sort of sequel that enriches (almost) everything that has preceded it.

We knew from the previous films that Apollo had a family and children, but Creed reveals that he also had a child out of wedlock. Unfortunately, Apollo died before his son Adonis (played as an adult by Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station) was even born, and Adonis' mother died a few years after that. The kid spends a few years bouncing in and out of various foster homes and juvenile detention facilities, until Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, The Cosby Show) tracks Adonis down and adopts him.

The original Rocky told the story of a blue-collar palooka (Sylvester Stallone, First Blood) who overcame his humble origins and proved himself to the world by holding his own against the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. In direct contrast, Creed tells the story of a young man raised in a world of privilege, who quits his white collar job, tosses aside his silver spoon and takes up boxing (which had been a secret part-time hobby, but has turned into a full-time career goal) in the hopes of proving something to himself. Mary Anne is baffled and angered by Adonis' decision: why would someone who already has a good life laid out in front of them want to subject themselves to the intense physical punishment that comes with one of the world's most violent sports? She orders him to drop the idea, but Adonis refuses. This is something he has to do.

Unfortunately for him, all of the best trainers in the area know Mary Anne and refuse to contradict her wishes. So, Adonis is left with no choice but to travel to Philadelphia in the hopes of convincing his father's old pal Rocky to train him. Rocky's an old man now, and while he's pleased to meet Adonis, he doesn't want to think about boxing anymore. “I'm done with all that,” he insists. Naturally, Rocky's resistance slowly dissolves, and soon enough we're back in the world of training montages and soaring soundtrack themes.

Creed is a good movie on its own terms, but a sensational movie for those with an affection for this series. In scene after scene, Coogler finds ways to employ the visual language of the earlier Rocky flicks (several of them, but particularly the original) in the service of scenes that feel like beautifully-crafted mirror images of iconic moments. Almost everything here feels simultaneously fresh and familiar, and the end result is a film that successfully hosts an abundance of fine-tuned nostalgia while also establishing itself as its own thing. It's a fairly remarkable balancing act, and it's a huge confirmation of the talent Coogler demonstrated in his (excellent, but considerably bleaker) debut feature Fruitvale Station.

I've long found Jordan to be a pretty magnetic screen presence, and his turn in Creed is a real-deal movie star role, simultaneously showcasing him as an athletic action star, a commanding dramatic actor and a tender, charming romantic lead. His Adonis is smarter and better-educated than a lot of boxers (certainly moreso than Rocky was at the same age), but there's still a youthful impetuousness that is both a strength and a weakness. He's fundamentally a sweet guy, but he's dealing with a lot of rage and insecurity that keeps bubbling to the surface when people push his buttons. There's often a raw intensity in Adonis' eyes, and he slowly learns how to channel that intensity as the film progresses.

It's a terrific performance, and it's also an important one. Despite the fact that professional boxing has long been dominated by black men, most of cinema's boxing heroes have been white. Indeed, Rocky himself - almost certainly the most iconic big-screen boxer of all time – spent the first three films of his series overcoming the odds against intimidating black fighters. Rocky was a well-crafted character, but too many other movie fighters have been imitations of him (just look at this year's clunky Southpaw, which casts Jake Gyllenhaal as yet another white fighter in the Rocky mold). It's not that any of these individual movies are deliberately racist, but Hollywood's systematic bias has ensured that the world of movie boxing doesn't look much like the real world. Coogler and Jordan aim to give us a black pop culture hero to match The Italian Stallion. That's a tall order, but they succeed, and it seems appropriate that they're doing it within the confines of Rocky's series.

Speaking of which, it's surprising to discover just how good Stallone is here. There's a reason Rocky's name is no longer in the title – he's a major supporting character this time around, not a co-lead – but this might just be the best performance of the actor's career. In the likable-but-clumsy Rocky Balboa, Rocky was struggling to cope with the loss of his wife. Now, his grief has deepened considerably, as his old pal Paulie has died and his son has moved far away. In one of the film's most wrenching scenes, he reveals his struggle to find anything worth living for. There's such genuine pain and battered beauty in this performance – just look at the scene where Stallone delivers a huge emotional moment by doing nothing more than taking off his hat. Rocky may be giving Adonis the training he needs to win, but eventually, Adonis is tasked with giving Rocky a reason to keep going.

Stallone's performance is surprisingly subtle, but the movie is not. The Rocky movies have always been masculine melodramas to at least some degree, and that trend continues here. There are big dialogue scenes in which the characters say exactly what they're thinking, and other scenes that rather blatantly spell out the film's themes (the movie smacks you over the head on multiple occasions with the notion that Adonis and Rocky are fighting for each other). This isn't a bad thing: sweeping, overt emotion feels exactly right for this sort of movie.

The film's tone is effectively matched by a Ludwig Goransson score which does a nice job of modernizing the template Bill Conti established for the series. Rather than leaning on the iconic “Gonna Fly Now” (which has always been Rocky's theme), Goransson gives Adonis a similarly memorable new anthem which receives a whole lot of fun variations (including an exhilarating sequence that incorporates both hip-hop and choral lyrics). Still, Conti hasn't been erased from the mix: fleeting traces of Rocky's theme are heard on occasion, and I defy anyone who has ever cared about a Rocky movie not to get goosebumps when the “Going the Distance” theme kicks in during the film's final fight (against a surly British opponent played by real-life fighter Tony Bellew).

This series has always been defined by big dramatic moments, but Coogler also recognizes that those scenes are more effective when they're accompanied by scenes of quiet grace (something which has long set the first Rocky film apart from the others). There's a good deal of time spent on a romance between Adonis and an aspiring singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Dear White People), which ultimately proves as gently charming as the old Rocky/Adrian scenes. Much like Adrian, Bianca isn't merely treated as “the girl” but as a distinctive character who becomes one of the most important parts of Adonis' life. Again, it's a mirror image of the first film: Rocky/Adrian/Mickey has become Adonis/Bianca/Rocky.

2015 has been an exceptionally good year for big, crowd-pleasing entertainment (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Cinderella, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation), and Creed is yet another reminder that movies boasting mass appeal don't have to feel like soulless product. This is such a beautiful, big-hearted movie, directed with stylish confidence and anchored by terrific performances. It's the embodiment of everything that has ever been good about this series. I can't wait to see what Mr. Coogler does next.


Creed

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Year: 2015