Have you watched the original Rocky lately? It’s kind of remarkable just how great that movie is and how different it is from the other Rocky movies. We all know it won an Academy Award for Best Picture, but I feel that’s just some piece of information we all know is true, but don’t spend a lot of time thinking about why. I mean, Rocky beat All The President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Network — cases could be made for all of these movies, but this isn’t a, “How in the world did Rocky win?” situation: Rocky absolutely deserves to be in the conversation with those other films.
Imagine there were a Taxi Driver 4. In Taxi Driver 4, after a drug deal gone wrong, Iris Steensma is critically injured, so Travis Bickle travels to the Soviet Union to wreck havoc on the men who injured Iris. This leads to the famous exchange, “You talking to me, comrade? You talking to me? Well, dasvidaniya, punk!” At the end of the movie, Travis Bickle ends the Cold War. Now, I wrote all that as something preposterous, but part of me thinks this would be immensely entertaining. But if someone told you the plot of Rocky IV in 1976, it would sound just as ludicrous. In Rocky, Rocky Balboa is a streetwise punk who breaks people’s thumbs for extra cash. In Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa owns a talking robot.
No matter how much we might like the Rocky franchise, the sequels still dilute how we perceive the original. The last act of Rocky II is great, but the rest of the movie is a bit of a slog. I loved Rocky III as a child – hey. Mr. T and Hulk Hogan – but it doesn’t really hold up when watching as an adult. Rocky IV is insanely entertaining, but it’s a different genre. Rocky V is terrible. And Rocky Balboa is nice enough, in a, “Well, at least the last Rocky movie isn’t Rocky V,” kind of way.
This brings us to Creed, hands down the best Rocky movie since the original and a film that should legitimately be in the Academy Award conversation, just like the original Rocky. When I’ve told people how good this movie is, I’m met with shock. This is because people aren’t remembering Rocky, they are remembering the Rocky franchise. This is understandable, but that mindset has to be tweaked for Creed.
It’s kind of amazing that no one else has tried to make a movie about the son of Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers in the first four Rocky films) until now. It’s good that a director like Ryan Coogler (who directed the terrific Fruitvale Station) got on board. And it’s fortunate that a no-brainer movie like Creed was still around for someone like Coogler — a director who knows what he’s doing and knows these characters — to make
We first meet young Adonis Creed in the late ‘90s – we find out he’s the result of an affair Apollo had shortly before Apollo’s death. As a result he has no real family, so he’s been in and out of foster care his whole life. After another altercation at a juvenile detention center, he meets Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashād), who, finally coming to grips with Apollo’s infidelity, invites Adonis to live with her.
We smash-cut to the present where Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), using his biological mother’s last name, has a nine-to-five at a Los Angeles investment firm. He just got promoted, but he dreams of being a fighter, often driving to Tijuana to participate in back-alley boxing matches. With no one interested in training Adonis – his father’s old team refuses, pointing out that Adonis has a good life and doesn’t need to wind up dead like “his daddy” – he moves to Philadelphia and tracks down a reluctant Rocky Balboa.
This is the first time I’ve truly believed Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa since the original film. Stallone is legitimately wonderful. It was hard to tell from the trailers if Stallone plays a big role in Creed or if it’s a glorified cameo, but Stallone is is a major presence in this film. Stallone himself directed Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Rocky Balboa. It’s amazing what happens when a talented director like Coogler is calling the shots: Coogler gets the best performance I’ve seen out of Stallone since… (I’m looking through Stallone’s filmography right now, trying to find something sort of recent as to not be too hyperbolic … still looking … still looking … okay, maybe Cop Land, let’s go with that instead of writing that it’s the original Rocky) …Cop Land. And before that, it’s probably the original Rocky.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s score, which teases us with variations of the famous Rocky theme over and over. When the main theme finally kics in, it will make you want to do a fist pump. It’s timed perfectly.)
This plot point is revealed in the trailer, but if you want to be totally spoiler-free and haven’t seen the trailer, this is your warning: A big reason Creed works is the duality of two separate fights we see. Yes, we watch young Adonis try to make it as a boxer (Jordan, too, is excellent and should be considered a Best Actor contender), but Rocky is sick. And while Creed fights for his pride, Rocky fights for his life. There’s a true connection between these two men – an emotional connection that left me tearing up multiple times during the film’s last act. I did not expect to cry during what is essentially Rocky 7, but I did.
Jordan is great. Stallone is great. Tessa Thompson, a musician who plays Creed’s love interest, is great. Coogler nails every beat. Everything feels earned. Adonis Creed is fighting under the shadow of his father’s legacy. Creed is fighting against the legacy of the Rocky sequels. In the end, Creed is a true champion.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.