What it means to leave and live up to a legacy comes up often in Creed. Ryan Coogler's boxing drama resurrects the Rocky saga, bringing back the aging fighter synonymous with the series and introducing the offspring of another beloved character. No surprises there. But what is less expected is how well the feature succeeds in doing all three. That, and just how rousing the drama proves, both as the next instalment in a series and as a movie in its own right.
Cast 2006's lacklustre Rocky Balboa from your mind: this is a continuation that fans can warm to, as can those without four decades of fondness for the franchise. That, on its own, is no easy feat. As the last jump back into Sylvester Stallone's knockabout world confirmed, revisiting the Italian Stallion in the years since the 1976 original can be rather hit-and-miss. Enter director Ryan Coogler and leading man Michael B. Jordan to show that the sixth sequel/spinoff can be the charm. The Fruitvale Station duo reteams to bring the writer-director's passion project to fruition, and in doing so gift the young actor with another knockout part.
Jordan plays Adonis "Donnie" Johnson, a boxing wannabe with a pedigree he's struggling with. Though his early years were spent in foster care and juvenile detention, he's the illegitimate son of famed fighter Apollo Creed — and while he shares the same sporting ambitions, he wants to make it on his own terms. Heading from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, he seeks out his dad's repeated opponent turned pal Rocky (Stallone), eventually convincing him to become his trainer, and tries to follow in his father's footsteps.
Cue the story of an underdog scrapping his way to the top despite several setbacks, more than a few montages and inspirational speeches, some high stakes and blistering bouts, plus an on-again, off-again relationship between Adonis and his neighbour, aspiring singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson), as well as a surrogate father-son bond blossoming with Rocky. Little happens in Creed that isn't easily foreseen. And yet the film doesn't feel like another formulaic follow-up.
In fact, just as it sprinkles the familiar score from the original offering throughout its soundtrack and references events from movies gone by, Creed finds the right balance between looking backwards and starting a new future. Combining sincere nostalgia with a clear path forward, the feature achieves exactly what its protagonist is aiming for as he endeavours to do justice to his predecessor while making his own way.
Coogler's direction – emphasizing the grit of the streets and the urgency of the ring, and shooting every fight close and tight for maximum tension – is certainly influential. His indie stylings are an ideal fit for the material, and for enlivening a genre seen so many times before that much of its content has become cliched. And yet, his technique often takes second place to the stars that grace the screen. That's not a criticism of Coogler — it's just a reflection of how engaging both Jordan and Stallone prove.
The former once again demonstrates his charisma, complexity and versatility, while the latter benefits from stepping away from the main fray, and the rapport they share is moving. With mentor-protégé tales common movie fodder, it's rare for such an on-screen pairing to really hit the emotional marks. Crucially, Creed isn't a comeback for Stallone, but a film that keeps him connected to the iconic series he started. It plays upon his ambling acting strengths and passes on the baton to a worthy successor. And yes, it both leaves and lives up to a legacy.