Before the ‘Rocky’ series became all glitz and glam, it was a story about a down on his luck, poor boxer who gets a once in a lifetime chance to forge a great career. Rocky was at his best when he was fighting for something, and although the transition is not quite the same for Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed in this film, the hunger to become a great boxer surrounded by the aura of a great underdog story is what makes this film work.
It turns out the America’s man Apollo Creed from the classic series had an affair and an illegitimate child out of it. Apollo, in Rocky IV, dies in the ring, but it turns out that the woman with whom he had the affair also dies as well, leaving her son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) to foster care. When Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) locates Adonis, she takes him in and becomes a true mother to him, making sure he is educated and has a chance at a legitimate career and job. The problem is that Adonis has too much of his father in him, partially getting into the ring as part of his legacy, but also to feel close to the father he never knew. So, he makes the choice to fight full time. Creed is the story of legacy and the past cycling back to the present.
So, Adonis heads to Philadelphia to learn from his father’s greatest friend and greatest adversary, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Initially, Rocky is hesitant to get back in the world of boxing, feeling that he left it behind long ago, but Adonis’s hunger drives him to train again, and in addition to trying to rise in the world ranks, Adonis also meets a Philly girl Bianca (Tessa Thompson) with whom he hits it off.
In terms of a ‘Rocky’ movie, this finally gets the serious tone back in the series, and with Ryan Coogler directing, the emotional core of Rocky has been restored. The boxing scenes are excellently handled, but it’s the outside of the ring stuff that is the most interesting, a story about loss and legacy. Any sports drama, like the inferior Southpaw, from earlier this year can get boxing to look good on camera, but here, caring about the character so much makes these fight scenes downright scary. Michael B. Jordan proves again that he’s a strong young actor.
The scene-stealing performance, however, is from the Italian Stallion himself, Rocky Balboa. Stallone’s troubled, old, broken-down portrayal of a Rocky without much to live for is often heartbreaking. This is still a Rocky movie at its center because of the beautiful supporting work that Stallone does here. It’s his best performance of his career.
The cinematography allows Philadelphia to really look great, the sense of community and place among one of the nation’s most misunderstood cities. Philadelphia is great, and the movie embraces all of Philadelphia, the good and the bad, and does it justice on screen. It’s not the decent romance, the nice choreography in the fights, or even the amazing performance by Stallone that makes this as good as the original Rocky and one of the best films of the year. No, it’s the film’s sense of purpose and unabashed ability to take a formulaic concept and turn it into something really great. Coogler has reinvigorated the tale of Rocky Balboa, and he has done it by honoring the legacy of its inception, much like Adonis does with Apollo.