Creed has pulled off a seemingly impossible task in that what is technically part seven in a series of movies is not only a wholly original work on its own, but a fantastic piece of storytelling and filmmaking. Creed is simultaneously its own work of art and an honoring of the Rocky series.
The film begins when Adonis “Donny” Creed (the illegitimate son of Apollo, the famed fighter from the Rocky movies) is still a child. He finds himself an orphan, both mother and father dead–his father having died before he was born. He fights with others. He has a violent temperament. Throughout his childhood and his adult life, he sees himself as valueless, as someone who came from something great but will never reach those highs by himself. He sets out on a journey of self-discovery and a discovery of self worth.
He moves to Philadelphia to embark on his own career as a boxer. There, he enlists the help of the man, the legend, Rocky Balboa, to mentor him through his early career as a professional fighter. Rocky isn’t interested, wondering why anyone would fight if they don’t have to. If there’s an out, why wouldn’t they just take it?
Donny is played by Michael B. Jordan to perfection. He has motivations that make sense to himself, and the movie wisely doesn’t have him spell out his lifelong aspirations to the audience. Human beings are imperfect and what inspires us is often self-contained and that logic is anything but universal. What seems like a brilliant plan to someone may not seem that way to anyone else around them. He feels less than worthy of the name “Creed” so he goes by another. He wants to prove that he wasn’t a mistake, that his life, like any other, has some sort of meaning.
Movies that pull at the heart strings realize that sentimentality isn’t a tool that can be used liberally. It’s something that has to be earned. When music swells and deliberate emotional manipulation begins to take place, if that moment isn’t earned, what you have is a moment of pure cheese, absolute corniness that falls flat. Ryan Coogler, the co-writer and director of Creed, understands this and understands the language of film, and when he has those moments, they feel very, very right in their placement in the film.
What a lot of people forget is that the first Rocky movie is an absolute American masterpiece. Once of the best films of its era. Sylvester Stallone himself is a rags-to-riches story. Creed is a reminder of that, because Sylvester Stallone gives one of his absolute best, all-time performances in this movie. I would be very surprised if he wasn’t at the very least nominated for an Academy Award. Creed is also an expansion upon the original themes of Rocky. Creed seems to make a statement about life itself, that life has value despite what you may think of yourself. Even if the world seems to agree with an assessment that you’re not worthy enough for a title you’ve denied, that’s a bunch of bullshit. Everyone matters in the web of life.
And, yes, there are fights. The fights are not the emphasis in the movie. Rather, the story is. Even still, there are two absolutely magnificent fight scenes in this movie: One done entirely in one take and the climactic fight scene. Both are thrilling, not simply because of the action direction and editing, but because of our emotional involvement. Whatever the end-result of any of the fights may have been seems almost irrelevant or secondary because the movie is so strongly committed to what happens next because every revelation is part of our journey, along with Donny, to see where he grows to next. And not every growth he undergoes makes him a “better” person. Just like anyone, he stumbles along the way and his self-loathing rage explodes at times. He lashes out at the ones around him who love him the most.
In a sea of films loaded with special effects, shoe-horned chase scenes, emotionless action and formulaic storytelling, a movie like Creed feels like something new, even if it’s the 7th entry in a series of movies, with a similar plot to the first one. It feels that way because it’s excellently told. The dialogue is natural. The performances are engaging. The direction is masterful (and I don’t intend to use that word lightly, I mean masterful).
Sincerity goes a long way in a movie like this. Nothing about it feels manufactured. It feels like a sincere statement that’s actually about something. And, as a result, it’s absolutely one of the best movies this whole year.