What if Apollo Creed had a child out of wedlock who was raised by his widow and grew up to be a boxer? I bet that's a question you didn't need answered until Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan came along. But thank god they did, because the answer turned out to be Creed and it’s a masterpiece.
It's almost a remake (or perhaps a "reboot," if you're the worst) of Rocky. The only difference is Adonis Creed is a young black man from Los Angeles, not an aged (in boxing years) white fighter from Philadelphia, and the ultimate goal is breakthrough rather than redemption.
The rest follows the usual blueprint, only executed to perfection. Jordan heads to Philly looking to be trained by Rocky (Sylvester Stallone's best performance since Cop Land), who's been out of the game for years but sees a spark in the kid once his lineage is exposed. Adonis meets a girl, Rocky gets to know both of them, and they all fill voids in each other while catching a lucky break and meeting their respective destinies.
To me, it's been a year of "nail the basics" at the movies, and Creed sticks with to that strategy. Director/co-writer Coogler focuses on expertly filmed fight sequences (the big knockdown in the final fight is visual craftsmanship at its finest) and the relationships between key characters, trusting that their tried-and-true story will hit home. And he's right; no matter how convoluted the explanation as to why Creed is getting a title shot, no matter what hoops the two lovebirds have to go through to find happiness, we'll invest if its earned.
Unfortunately, much like the franchise originator Creed doesn't exactly invest in a proud female lead. I watched the original recently and it's creepy how much Rocky pushes himself onto Adrian; she's shy and ultimately receptive to his advances, but his awkward charms feel a little rapey by the end of the "seduction." Nothing here comes close to that level; Adonis is respectful and utterly captivated by Tessa Thompson's Bianca. But she's mostly a blank slate: a musician who is going deaf, which is a nice touch but never really taken further than that.
Nevertheless, they share one of the movie's most beautiful and quietly emotional moments when Bianca shows up in Liverpool for Adonis's big fight. He lights up when seeing her at the door and invites her in, adding a late and barely audible "please" when she's already halfway into the room. It's as if he's so afraid of losing her again—as implausible as that would be right then—that he can't stop the word from sneaking through.
I saw Rocky Balboa in a South Jersey theater back in 2006, and the audience cheered when Duke told Rocky that it was time to "start building some hurtin' bombs." But it was a cheer of nostalgia; getting jaded moviegoers to buy into the then-60-year-old Stallone boxing one more time was a feat in and of itself, but it was helped along by the goodwill of the past.
Creed makes use of this nostalgia, but mostly to spring us into the future. Yes, it helps to have Stallone reprise the role of Rocky one more time. The early scene where he's reading the paper at Adrian's and Paulie's graves is gentle, poignant, and brilliant at setting the stage for Rocky's surprisingly exposed and intimate journey to come.
But the movie is Jordan's, and it doesn't allow you to forget that. The comedy, and then the heartbreak, comes from how Adonis gloms onto Rocky and doesn't let go. It's funny until it becomes a yearning, and when Creed snaps you can tell how much it hurts the both of them. Jordan's outbursts, already honed through two years as a proud quarterback on Friday Night Lights, are even more powerful when he's this swole, shirtless and screaming.
More than anything, this is a movie for now. From explaining what jawn means to having Adonis pose for "IG" with Bianca's headliner at a show, it's one of the few screenplays with modern references that its actors look comfortable reciting. But to take that even further, it's a movie about being black in America. It's a movie about the actual working class, a title that Italians and the Irish mostly gave up long ago but Hollywood has clung to in an effort to make a boatload of 'safe' white-centric movies.
It's weird to say it, but I truly feel this could be a turning point for mainstream American cinema. Where were you when a black director and two black leads took over a series and made it their own? And people of all sorts loved it? It's just a movie, yes, but making millions of dollars and pleasing millions more speaks to what we want in theaters. We want fun, thought-out movies about real people of all shapes, sizes, and colors. We want honest stories. We want more gems like Creed.