In 1976, a sports film came out that would hook into the minds and hearts of audiences with its resonant story. That movie was called Rocky. Written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, it told the tale of Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer who gets the chance to take on Apollo Creed. Realizing that this fight with the heavyweight champion of the world is his chance to prove that he has worth, he does all that he can to prepare for this opportunity of a lifetime. Its underdog story is one that made a star out of Sylvester Stallone, but it did more than that. It spawned a franchise, with five more films spinning out from that initial tale. Though the quality of these sequels would vary, there is no denying the staying power of the very first Rocky film. In fact, the franchise has now received a new addition to its legacy. However, it’s not yet another tale of Rocky Balboa having to go back into the ring. This time, it’s a spin-off known as Creed, with Rocky Balboa serving as a side character.
Ever since he was young, Adonis Johnson had a fighting streak in him. The son of Apollo Creed born from an affair, he was adopted by Mary Anne Creed and given a privileged life to help ease his troubles. It was not enough, however. Dissatisfied with a job at a finance firm and still grappling with father issues, he decides to become a boxer full-time. To help himself, Adonis heads out to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky Balboa to train him. Along with Rocky eventually agreeing to train him, Adonis also starts dating an up-and-coming singer named Bianca. However, his life ends up getting two major challenges thrown in its path. One is an offer to battle the world light heavyweight champion, provided he call himself Creed rather than hiding behind his birth mother’s last name. The other is a serious illness, as age finally catches up to Rocky Balboa and threatens his life. With these obstacles in his path, Adonis sets out to prove his own power and that there is more to him than just his father’s name.
It’s almost a surprise just how well this film turned out. Though the idea of a spin-off in the Rocky franchise could have easily been a cold cash-in, it’s instead handled with impeccable skill. The direction by filmmaker Ryan Coogler is very good, capturing not only the tender moments in the lives of these characters but also the brutal and raw nature of boxing. The cinematography is top-notch, using a variety of shooting methods to offer variety to such things as boxing matches and even montages. The performances in the film are also excellent. In particular, I have to mention Michael B. Jordan. Playing the lead role of Adonis Johnson, he captures the character’s struggle with carving out his own path while dealing with this father’s legacy. Sylvester Stallone also delivers a fine return performance in the role of Rocky Balboa. Though the iconic character has now grown weary with age and the losses in his life, Stallone can still deliver on Rocky’s spirit as he comes out to train Adonis. Now, this leads me into what is one of the shining aspects of this film: the writing.
The writing is some truly fine work, functioning on a number of levels. For one, the core story itself is a well-told and interesting one. Its tale of a young man trying to find his own path and meaning while grappling with the issues of a father long since deceased is a fascinating study, offering a different sort of underdog story that proves just as fascinating to watch. Along with that, the film pulls off the delicate balancing act of being its own story while firmly placed within the history of the Rocky films. These earlier films do fill out the world, their impact felt through familiar locations in Philadelphia or clips of the boxing matches that were featured in them or even the aftermath of events from those previous entries. However, they do not distract from the main story or define it. This film is firmly focused on Adonis Johnson and his journey. It doesn’t try to overextend Rocky Balboa himself. His presence is as a supporting character and, though his subplot of aging and illness does lean into the main story, he stays aside as Adonis Johnson shines. To be able to have that focus yet respect its sources, to be able to carve a story of its own even as it exists firmly rooted in a world with legacy, is a challenge that this film meets with ease. In fact, it’s a rather fitting notion considering Adonis and his own battle with legacy.
Thanks to the brilliant work from its cast and crew, Creed stands tall as a great film on its own and a strong addition to the Rocky franchise. In fact, it’s not simply a case of being yet another movie that spins from the very first Rocky film. To me, this is the entry in the franchise that feels like a true successor to that very first movie.