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Just two films in, Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan seem like they are OTP. After impressing with Fruitvale Station, the moving and important film that takes a close look at a day in the life of a black man murdered by a police officer, the two return with Creed, an effort so distinct from the small, subtle indie that put the them on the map back in 2013.
A spin-off of the Rocky franchise but also the seventh movie that takes place in the same world, Creed focuses on Adonis Creed (Jordan), the orphaned son of the legendary Apollo Creed, who is most famous for fighting, defeating and later befriending Rocky Balboa. Like the best movies in the series, Creed is more than just a fighting movie—it takes a hard look at the dangers of the sport, calls kinship into question, and manages to be as sincere and tense outside the ring as it is inside it.
A young Adonis is an angry juvenile delinquent with little knowledge of his parents and legacy. As his situation begins to escalate, he is adopted by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo’s tough but loving widow. She lets Adonis know that he is Apollo’s son, a product of an extramarital affair, and takes him under her wing, where he keeps his temper in check, gets an education, and eventually, in his 20s, is promoted at his desk job. But a nine-to-five is not in his blood, and Adonis finds himself watching old tapes of his father, memorizing steps, and self-training. It’s clear that he has natural talent, but it’s unharnessed. So despite Mary Anne’s objections and fears—Apollo died in the ring after all—Adonis decides to move from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, where he convinces Rocky, who owns and operates an Italian restaurant named Adrian’s (after his deceased wife) and is far removed from the fighting world, to train him.
While Creed really gets moving with Adonis’s relocation to Philadelphia, where shots of real life gyms, blocks, and monuments make the city a character in itself, it’s particularly effective anytime Stallone, who reprises his role as Rocky (it’s the first of the films he hasn’t written himself), is on screen. As an older, fatigued mentor, Stallone is wondrous, equally hilarious and heartbreaking as he begins to take on the role of makeshift father to Adonis. First hesitant to get back into boxing, Adonis’s consistent nagging has Rocky agreeing to help. Adonis moves in and there are genuinely funny scenes of the two living together. Rocky wakes Adonis up early with his loud music and dancing, and some of the training sequences that show Adonis running after Rocky in a truck are also pretty funny.
It’s to Creed’s credit that it can simultaneously operate as an action flick and as a film that has a lot to say about fathers, sons, and masculinity in general. It’s by no means an intellectual movie, but Coogler is wise in the way he consistently asserts and shows the true nature of the sport. There’s no glamorization of the fight, and between Mary Anne’s fear for her adopted son, closeup shots of Adonis’s bloodied face, and cuts of blood splattering all over the ring, it becomes difficult to see boxing as just any other game. It’s smart not only because it makes Adonis’s journey that much more complicated, but because it creates this ambiguous air around the sport itself. When Rocky’s own health is in peril, we see a savvy parallel between the two, who are both flirting and fighting against death in their own ways. Creed, in some ways, calls the idea of fighting into question, asking if it’s ever really worth it.
Aside from the heavy training and fighting, Adonis is also given a love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a hard, West Philly singer who has a degenerative hearing condition. It’s another smart, complicated relationship, and Creed makes Bianca more than just a ringside cheerleader for Adonis. She comes with her own baggage, her own struggle, and Coogler decides to make her more of a partner to Adonis than a two dimensional love interest. When Adonis comes to one of Bianca’s concerts, he starts a fight with another performer, which not only shows how exceptionally violent his whole world can be, but also establishes Bianca as a no-nonsense fighter in her own sense. She has her goals and won’t let Adonis’s temper get in the way.
In these respects Creed excels. It’s never sentimental and has genuinely terrifying scenes in the ring, where we see Adonis and his opponents pummel each other, each fighting for something more than just a win. It’s a bit conventional, hitting all the major plot points that lead up to a final, all-or-nothing fight, but between Coogler’s confident and sensitive direction and the three lead performances, we get a film that not only holds up to others in the franchise, but also transcends its genre and is great on its own terms.