Much has been written about the joyous cinematic experience that is “Creed,” whether our own Drew McWeeny's glowing review, or A.O. Scott's New York Times rave, which contains one of my favorite lines of criticism this year. (“A boxing movie without clichés is like a political campaign without lies.”) All those pieces have sung the justified praises of director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, of the star-making performance by Michael B. Jordan (there's Wallace!), of Sylvester Stallone inserting himself into the Oscar conversation, and of the technical brilliance of a film that's the best “Rocky” movie since the original.
Since we're almost a week past the release, and since, based on the movie's strong box office performance, many of you have likely seen it, I wanted to take a more specific approach (and one that will have many spoilers), and discuss some of the scenes in “Creed” in which the movie theater kept getting surprisingly dusty – aka the many moments in which I had to keep wiping tears from my face. That's coming up just as soon as I tell you what “jawn” means…
It feels right that Jordan is a part of this movie, not just because he's a superb actor who's been deserving of such a big mainstream showcase for a long time, but because he was a core part of the later seasons of “Friday Night Lights,” which was, like “Creed,” a fictional sports drama meticulously engineered to target its viewers' tear ducts at every opportunity. (See also his work on “The Wire” and “Parenthood.”) “Creed” is an unapologetically manipulative melodrama, but so expertly executed by Coogler, co-writer Aaron Covington, and everyone else involved that the tears felt earned.
So let's try to go in rough chronological order (I wasn't taking notes as I was watching the movie – and they'd be a blurry mess if I had been – so some of these might be out of sequence) and talk about some of the film's most effective tear-jerking moments:
Rocky reveals who won the secret fight at the end of “Rocky III.” It's somewhat implied at the start of “Rocky IV” that Apollo won, but in a way that still left it a mystery for fans of the series if they wanted it to be. Even the pause Rocky takes here before he says that Apollo won leaves some ambiguity, in that he could be saying it because he knows it's what this kid needs to hear. But there's a wonder in Stallone's voice as he says, “He did” that says so much about not only his love for Apollo, but his awe of a guy who was a technically superior fighter in every way, that made me choke up for the first time and realize this movie was going to work me over like I was one of the cuts of beef hanging in the meat locker in Rocky's heyday.
Rocky gets his diagnosis. The later trailers had spoiled the fact that Rocky was going to have some kind of health problem, so I spent much of the movie's early sections waiting for him to get diagnosed (or, perhaps, for Adonis to discover that Rocky had been getting chemo in between their sessions). Still, knowing what was coming didn't prepare me for the quiet force of Stallone's performance in that scene, and the way that Rocky seems far less troubled by the idea that he has cancer than by being reminded of how much Adrian suffered from a treatment regimen that failed to save her life. Killing off Adrian in between the events of the fourth and sixth movie was one of the more interesting choices Stallone made when crafting “Rocky Balboa,” and Coogler, Covington, and Stallone used that to devastating effect here. When the first “Rocky” came out, Stallone became the latest actor to be dubbed The New Brando, and while he's spent most of his career doing less challenging action hero work, and gradually turning into a caricature of himself, in this movie, and particularly in that moment, he was able to dial himself all the way back to the naturalistic actor who so wowed people back in 1976.
Rocky tells Adonis they aren't family. Another powerhouse Stallone scene, but one tied to the movie's larger themes about family, abandonment, and trying to get out of the shadow of a father figure you've never even met. That's the worst thing Rocky can tell Adonis in that moment, and he knows it, but he's so angry at his situation, and at the thought of how empty his life has become (including the end of whatever peace accord he and his son came to by the end of “Rocky Balboa”), and the thought of this fight is too much for him.
The location of the training montage. Every “Rocky” movie has to have at least one of these (my favorite is the one in “Rocky II” – and not just because it kicks off with Adrian telling Rocky to win, and Mickey bellowing, “WELL WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?” – which is such a catharsis after the movie's bleak first half), and “Creed” cleverly gives us two. The first is the traditional one, with Adonis chasing chickens and doing road work in different parts of Philly. I was surprised we were getting that one so relatively early into the movie, until Coogler sprang the idea that Adonis would be doing the bulk of his training for the Conlan fight in and around Rocky's hospital room. A beautiful way to reimagine the series' most famous device. (And we still got an outdoor version of Rocky running up the museum steps, with Adonis inviting the bikers to chase him up the hill.)
Adonis opens the box. “Creed” has more characters than it really has time to service properly. Bianca and Adonis temporarily break up mainly so that he and Rocky can be on their own for the cancer treatment, Pretty Ricky Conlan is even less developed than Mason Dixon was in “Rocky Balboa,” and it felt like there was way more to explore in Adonis' relationship with Mary Anne Creed, not to mention the idea that Rocky hasn't spoken to her since Apollo's funeral. That seemed to be begging for some kind of payoff, even if it was her scolding Rocky for again playing corner man to one of her loved ones. Maybe we'll get more of that in the now-inevitable “Creed II,” but her gift to her son – of the trunks his father famously wore in the last victory of his career – was plenty powerful even if she was thousands of miles away instead of in the dressing room with him.
Adonis tells Rocky why he needs to go the distance in the fight. “Creed” is baldly modeled on the structure of the first “Rocky,” with our hero as an undistinguished fighter granted a shot at the title entirely because he has an interesting name, and him giving the champ all he can handle in a gallant split decision loss. And the film over and over hits on the idea that Adonis is doing this to feel connected to the father he never knew, so on one level his explanation for why he has to go out for the last round isn't that surprising. But the plain and simple way he articulates what he's feeling – that he needs to show that he wasn't a mistake – is so direct that it's heartbreaking.
The “Rocky” theme plays as the final round begins. The score by Ludwig Göransson (longtime “Community” composer, among other resume lines) weaves in a phrase here or there from Bill Conti's famous compositions from the original movie, but he restrains himself from going any further, because he's saving that particular blow for the time when it will hit the hardest. This was yet another part of the movie that was spoiled for me in advance (Scott mentions it in the first line of his review), but it didn't matter, because it was so perfect in that scene that – like so much of “Creed” – knowing it was coming didn't make it any less of a knockout moment. By that point, I was alternately clapping and blowing my nose.
What did everybody else think? If you're a “Rocky” fan, how did “Creed” hold up? If you came to the movie without any prior knowledge, did the filmmakers do a good enough job of imparting the necessary info for the various character arcs to work? And should the sequel involve Adonis fighting Danny Wheeler, if only so that Jordan and Wood Harris can keep the whole “Wire” reunion thing going?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org