One of the biggest criticisms of our generation (the “Milennials,” read that with an appropriately derogatory snarl) is that our art is derivative. Blockbusters, some would posit, are becoming less original and are too reliant on repackaging old stories, characters and franchises and selling them as new. We’ve heard someone call our generation the “remix” generation: We’re just trying to recapture the magic of “Star Wars,” Marvel comics and ’80s action pictures, stuff our current filmmakers liked when they were kids.
And yet, “Creed” is something special, something different. Rather than churn out another soulless franchise reboot like this year’s actual horseshit “Terminator Genisys” and “Fantastic Four,” young director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) and his crew created the best kind of sequel, one that understands exactly what made the original series so popular but has something completely original to say. It’s both literally and metaphorically about standing in the shadow of something great and finding your own identity in acknowledging the past. “Creed” stands as a shining example of how to iterate with power, passion and originality.
“Creed” is the story of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan, “Fantastic Four”), the illegitimate son of deceased “Rocky” champion Apollo Creed. We begin with a brief, but powerful vignette that says more with imagery than words: a young Adonis (Alex Henderson, “Empire”) is adopted from juvenile detention by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad, “Good Deeds”) into a life of luxury. The rags-to-riches narrative of the original “Rocky” is abandoned here — it’s not about that anymore. In its place is a narrative about a man caught between two worlds: He can coast through life in luxury, or strive for something greater but risk his name overshadowing his skill and his worth. This is a thoroughly Millenial narrative.
We follow Adonis as he strives to create his own legacy as a boxer. Michael B. Jordan is astounding here, turning in a performance that’s visceral and emotional. He’s paired perfectly with Tessa Thompson (“Dear White People”) as love interest and musician Bianca (she produced her own music for the film), whose own struggle with degenerative hearing loss, a war against human deterioration and the ticking clock, parallels a boxer’s perfectly.
And Sylvester Stallone (“The Expendables 3”) turns in his best performance since the first “Rocky.” He understands the mythological Rocky character as a human so deeply, and deftly meshes the character’s hardship and grief with his own aging visage. Rocky has been beaten in the ring, sure, but life has knocked him down, too, taking his wife Adrian and friend Paulie. He ritually visits their graves and reads them the paper. He lives modestly and honestly, but he seems to have accepted that his glory days are behind him, as he awaits the day he might join his loved ones in the ground. Gone is the man who once said, “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” It is only the youthful injection from Adonis that gives Rocky the spark to keep going. Stallone, so restrained and contemplative, gives one of the year’s finest performances. But excellent humanistic acting from all performers drives the emotional core of “Creed” — MBJ, Thompson and Stallone should all be nominated for awards for this film.
And that’s to say nothing about the boxing itself. The midpoint of “Creed” features the single most impressively filmed boxing match the movies have ever seen, a one-shot masterpiece in visceral choreography that is pure cinematic magic (meaning we have no idea how they did it). Cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“The Wrestler”) also manages to nail the sportscast-like mise-en-scene of the original “Rocky” ’s fights in the climactic bout of “Creed,” a fight so exciting it repeatedly elicited guttural squeals and “oh-my-gods” from the filmgoers sitting in the audience.
The moment of catharsis in this film is a sequence of rousing excitement to the level we have not felt in the cinema in years. Initially, it parallels the famous hoodie-sporting run through the streets of Philadelphia in the original “Rocky.” Then, in a cacophony of roaring minibike engines, Childish Gambino and Vince Staples, it blazes its own trail. You have to witness this.
Early in the film, Adonis sits in his mother’s mansion and plays old clips of the Balboa-Creed fights on YouTube through a projector. He rises, approaches the screen and assumes a fighter’s stance, and then he shadowboxes his father. “Creed” strings together two hours and 15 minutes of images like these: powerful, emotional, human. There is not a second of this film that is wasted. Every shot is beautiful. Every line is meaningful. It’s romantic. It’s brutal. It’s honest.
“Creed” is a film about purpose that justifies itself. Against insurmountable odds, Adonis and Coogler make names for themselves.
And just consider this: “Creed” is so good that it took two writers to review it.