Despite the obvious name change, Creed is really just Rocky 7. And that’s OK. We are back in Philadelphia, on the ragged blue-collar streets and in the sweat-soaked gyms of Sylvester Stallone’s first boxing drama (the one that earned three Oscars, including a well-deserved Best Picture win). Stallone, himself, is back in his signature role for a seventh time, adding layers to his timeless palooka and evolving him for a new decade. No one understands Rocky more than Stallone, and the actor finds fresh quirks to animate. I didn’t think that I needed more time with the character after the 2006 Rocky Balboa (which gave Balboa a fitting farewell, and a near-perfect final scene), but I also didn’t regret the extra time and the additional window that Creed provided. It’s nice to see Rocky again.
But this isn’t Rocky 7. It’s Creed, and the title hints at the creative changes that have occurred, not all for the best. Rocky’s a supporting player, but this isn’t his story. Or, it isn’t supposed to be. Instead, writer-director Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station lead, Michael B. Jordan, appealed to Stallone to let them take a back door into this franchise, telling the story of Adonis, the son of Rocky’s first opponent, Apollo Creed. The idea has promise, and this approach is preferred over a straight (and lazy) remake of Stallone’s 1976 drama. By choosing a continuation, this also allows Stallone to stay in the story, and graduate to the salty mentor role that Burgess Meredith held for the first three Rocky movies. However, Rocky’s presence in Creed is both a welcome gesture and a distraction, and one that kept taking me out of Jordan’s story. That can’t be the desired effect.
You see, Creed is an echo. It’s a call back, at least in Adonis’ boxing storyline, to dramatic steps that Stallone already walked in the shoes of this character, through the lanes of this franchise. Underdog boxer who fights to earn respect? Check. Will he eventually face an allegedly unbeatable champion? Believe it. Are there training montages under the tutelage of a crusty but seasoned manager? It’s all too familiar. Through no real fault of Jordan – or Coogler, for that matter -- Creed can’t create separation from the powerful legacy of the Rocky series. In much the same way that Adonis is constantly measured against the accomplishments of his father, Apollo Creed, Creed is constantly compared to the actions of the previous Rocky movies. And there’s only so much that you can try that hasn’t already been done in six previous movies.
“But it’s better than Rocky V, right?” Oh, absolutely. Michael B. Jordan is visceral as Adonis, the illegitimate son of the former World Heavyweight Champion who was ignored when his birth father died in the ring and spent his formative years in juvenile detention centers. (Two quick points. One, the math doesn’t work. If Apollo died in 1985, then Adonis has to be 30 years old, minimum, and not in his early 20s, as is suggested in Creed. Also, if Apollo never raised this boy, isn’t the name “Adonis” an odd choice, and a dead giveaway that his birth father was probably the other man with the moniker of a Greek god?) But Jordan practically vibrates with an intense need to fight, to prove himself in the ring, and on the streets. And Coogler employs guerrilla-style filmmaking techniques for his early boxing scenes, pulling off an unbroken, single tracking shot for Adonis’ first bout. It’s a thing of beauty… but it also means that the pedestrian editing in the film’s final fight is inadequate, in comparison, and therefore a disappointment
I enjoyed Creed more when it was catching up with Balboa, who’s still running his Philadelphia restaurant, Adrian’s, and lamenting the family members he has lost over the years. Stallone slips on his gentle and slow Rocky persona like a boxer slides on his favorite gloves. Rocky’s side of the Creed equation outweighs Adonis’ because we’ve invested time into his life, fictional though it may be. We don’t know this new kid yet. Adonis doesn’t feel like the star of his own movie. He seems like a co-star in a Rocky sequel, and that’s a big difference.
Really, though, Creed isn’t bad. It’s not Grudge Match 2. But its crowd-pleasing moments lose some of their impact because we’ve seen them before, in movies that used at least one of the characters that we still see on screen. Will we see Creed 2? I’m reminded of Apollo’s words at the end of Rocky. “There ain’t going to be no rematch.” Then again, he was wrong, so we shall see.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my original screenplay for Miyagi, during which Pat Morita’s grandson seeks Ralph Macchio’s help standing up to a bully.