Here’s the surprise about Creed: it’s a movie that would be just as great even if the original Rocky never existed. Not that Creed is shy about its lineage. It’s an official sequel to the six-part Rocky series, which last visited theaters with 2006. It draws from the continuity of several movies in the series. It has Sylvester Stallone reprising his role as the iconic Italian Stallion. And Creed‘s structure will be familiar to long time students of the series: training, romance, and periods of self-doubt leading to up a climactic big fight. But Creed also is fresh and exciting, with a vitality all of its own. Rather than being complacent to ride the coat tails of Rocky, Creed, like its eponymous hero, wants to stand proudly on its own two feet. It does.
It’s also a star-making role for actor Michael B. Jordan. He brings fierce intensity (and a subdued, rocksteady intelligence) to a role that could be pure melodrama. He plays the illegitimate son of Balboa’s frenemy Apollo Creed (who died at the start of Rocky IV). Adonis (or “Donny”), was taken in by Apollo’s wife (quietly no-nonsense Phylicia Rashad) and grows up a privileged and angry kid. The street boxers have no respect for his upbringing, and that pushes him into distancing himself from the family name. He moves to Philadelphia (richly photographed by Marysle Alberti) and seeks out Rockyas his trainer. Their growing friendship forms a big piece of the movie’s beating heart.
Because make no mistake: like the best of the Rocky films, Creed‘s heart is big and warm. Despite the jabs, pummels and crunches that come with each boxing match (which Jordan handles with jaw-dropping athleticism), this is a movie about love, friendship and proving one’s self-worth. The scenes between Jordan and Stallone are much more than callbacks to the original Rocky, with Stallone now in the trainer’s role. They are emotional and true: they touch on real pain and loss, with this kid representing a new chapter in life for an aging boxer whose best years are behind him. They’re a late plot development with Rocky’s character, and the touching way that he reacts to it and justifies a crucial choice proves once again that Stallone can be a fantastic actor when given the chance.
Stallone’s performance is supporting, however. The real star is Jordan, who is electric. Despite the presence of real antagonists in the movie (Tony Bellew plays the climactic opponent, Pretty Boy, who isn’t exactly a bad guy but is fine with making himself look like one), it’s mainly about a kid fighting against himself: his doubt, his temper, his fear of not living up to his father’s legacy. Donny’s character, and Jordan’s performance, distinguish Creed from being a cheap Rocky cash-in. The role is just that rich and well-acted.
There’s also a love story between Donny and Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician who works small-scale Philly venues. Their scenes are well-observed, and the two actors’ chemistry is real. It’s a great, rare privilege in the movies to watch two characters fall in love and believe that they are. Here, you see the unspoken things they like about each other, how smart they are, and that they’re following their own script. Even their fights, when they happen, seem peppered with things and lines that seem like they would actually happen.
The director, Ryan Coogler, made the wonderful low-scale drama Fruitvale Station, and here, with a larger budget and working within a legendary series, he delivers amazing filmmaking. He finds ways to add texture to every scene, whether it’s through telling, quick cutaways (two black kids watching Donny in awe) or ambitious camerawork (note the mid-movie bout conducted in one astonishing take). Coogler also co-wrote, and it’s a mark of how high Creed‘s quality is that even though it ends as it must, with an epic fight, it’s one executed with such attention to character and such visceral punch that it’s as rousing–in its way–as anything you’ve ever seen. Creed isn’t just one of 2015’s best entertainments. It’s one of its best films, period.