Every so often, a movie comes along that’s so memorably crafted, so elegiac in its storytelling, and so masterful in its choice of actors, it stops you dead in your tracks. Against most odds, Creed is that movie.
The Rocky franchise devolved into cartoonish jingoism over the years, so it’s unsurprising that the latest film was met with a dose of healthy skepticism — but don’t call Creed a sequel. A spinoff from the original story line, this iteration is the film that brings Rocky back to its roots, no small feat in a climate in which we’re all weary of unnecessary sequels. And with excellent performances from Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan anchoring the film, things feel significantly less contingent upon special effects budgets than they do in most other spinoff films of late.
Michael B. Jordan, in the performance of a lifetime (to be noted, not his lifetime; Jordan is utterly phenomenal and yet this movie barely scratches the surface of where his prowess shall surely lead him), stars as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of heavyweight boxing legend Apollo Creed of the original films. The orphaned Adonis, who can’t stop fighting in juvenile detention centers around Los Angeles, is adopted by Creed’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) and raised in abject affluence while Mary Anne becomes a mother to Adonis.
Present-day Adonis holds down a comfortable finance job complete with corner office performance, but, as expected, the boxing path holds more for him. Off he departs to Philadelphia to hunt down Rocky Balboa (Stallone), the man who beat his father, to attempt to convince Rocky to train him. Rocky, having found peace after a long career by staying out of the spotlight, running a small eatery, and visiting his wife’s grave regularly, is less than obliging. After much convincing, as expected, he relents, and off we head into seemingly familiar Rocky territory.
Despite similar story arcs to the original — a formidable opponent, a gross underestimation by one’s peers, a burning desire to prove oneself, personal romantic turmoil threatening to derail the entire endeavor — screenwriters Ryan Coogler (who wrote and directed Jordan in Coogler’s noteworthy debut, Fruitvale Station) and Aaron Covington imbue Creed entirely new nuance and personal torments for their protagonist. The choice makes Creed a movie that feels completely reinvented, largely due to the fact that a fair number of Adonis’ struggles could only take place in Jordan’s generation. In two hours and 15 minutes, Coogler and Covington had ample time to belabor each plot point, but instead opted for a lighter approach, bobbing and weaving as gracefully between them as Adonis does in the ring.
The most nuanced part of Jordan’s performance, however, wasn’t just his pitch perfect portrayal of a former foster kid with something to prove juxtaposed against Adonis’ attempts to reckon with his privilege in the boxing world. It was instead a struggle far more millennial: Is being good and wanting to be great enough to actually become great? Adonis’ hubris is apparent, sure, but so is his humility; but his optimism – agreeing to matches Rocky has to remind him he’s not ready for – aren’t just the machinations of a petulant student, upset with their teacher. They instead read like the admirably naïve, if not gallant, intentions of someone of privilege, who has spent a considerable part of his life in a world where hard work did directly correlate to success (or in Adonis’ case, a corner office the day he chose to quit his 9 to 5). The world of boxing, much like reality, is a place where Adonis knows that wanting it bad may not equal wanting it badly enough. It’s not to say he doesn’t work hard — his origin story and resulting motivations simply are far more richly layered than a simple underdog story.
Michael B. Jordan is, of course, a tour de force of an actor. Despite having played a loosely similar role in critical darling Friday Night Lights, Jordan’s electric performance feels brand new. As Coogler and Covington took the light approach to plot, much of the film is carried by both Jordan and Stallone; a true actor’s film, rather than just another movie. To watch Jordan is to know you’re not just watching a good actor – the next Denzel Washington, or Tom Hanks, or Morgan Freeman – you’re watching someone whom other actors very quickly will seek comparison to. And Stallone’s reprised Rocky couldn’t have come at a better time — despite the action genre he feels the need to specialize in, his talent lies in his strong, reticent performances in movies like this one.
Creed isn’t just a movie about the triumph of human spirit; it isn’t even a successful spinoff of a beloved film. It’s a master class in acting, writing, and pacing, proof that two hours and 15 minutes can pass in no time whatsoever, without having to rely on heavy plot, ample twists, and needlessly stuffed dialogue. It’s a movie that reminds you just how great movies can be, even against all odds.
Creed will be released on November 25th.
Photos by Warner Bros.