I’d be lying if I said that Sylvester Stallone not writing the script for Creed isn’t noticeable. It’s the only film in the series in which he’s not the screenwriter. In fact, you can attribute his wise simplicity as a reason why the Rocky films work on so many levels. He’s not really Rocky, but in a way he is. He’s close to the character. And while this latest installment’s protagonist is somebody new, the film is about Rocky Balboa as well. Any absence of that character would only speak to a deficiency of the film’s depth.
The film follows Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who discovers that he’s the son of deceased boxer, Apollo Creed. Taken in by Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), he decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a professional boxer. Mary Anne is against the idea since her husband died in the ring in Rocky IV. Adonis goes against her wishes and finds Balboa (Stallone), who was best friends with Creed, and asks him to be his trainer.
Working his way up the local fighting circuit, Adonis also meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer-songwriter who he immediately falls in love with. Their relationship blossoms over the course of the film and the two of them have amazing chemistry.
However, the same can’t be said for Stallone and Jordan. It’s obvious the two of them were obligatorily placed together for the purpose of this film, and the trajectory of their relationship is enduring, but it’s not terribly believable. The pair don’t get nearly enough meaningful moments together until near the end.
Eventually, Adonis gets the attention of undefeated light heavyweight champion, Ricky Conlon (Anthony Bellew), and word gets out that Adonis bares the Creed name, despite his attempts to keep it a secret. The rest of the film follows the proven Rocky formula, mixing it up now and then.
Creed is definitely deep. But not in the ways you might want. Adonis struggles throughout the film with accepting his father’s name. A father who died before he was born and he never knew. In many ways, Creed is more emotionally complex than most Rocky films, but what’s depth if you don’t like the protagonist as much?
Compared to Adonis, Balboa is just more likable. Adonis may be more inherently vulnerable, and has a more realistic chip on his shoulder. But his lack of humbleness is what makes him less appealing. We don’t just love Rocky movies for the stories, but for the character as well.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) brings a more indie sensibility to the franchise. In Creed, we get a raw look at the boxing world, and that unvarnished style is what Coogler brings to the table from his career background.
But he also misses the mark a couple of times. Rocky films are known for their memorable villains, but Conlon is perhaps the worst of the bunch. Rockys have always done a great job of building up the depth and motives for the grand opponents. We see this best with Apollo Creed (hence this spinoff) and even Mason Dixon in Rocky Balboa (aka Rocky VI). We’re made to empathize with these villains and even like them in certain instances. Then there’s the other side of the spectrum with Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, where the whole point is how unflinchingly brutal he is, but there’s still a motive there. Creed’s Conlon is achingly shallow. There’s no real driving force and there’s definitely no sympathy for him. Which is strange because Coogler is provenly capable of giving us what we need, as seen in his blockbuster film Black Panther with Jordan’s own character, Killmonger, where he beautifully rounds out the antagonist’s motives.
Even the seldom moments when a Rocky film provides us with shallow villains we’re supposed to detest, we get that rivalry and hatred from the beginning of the film. Conlon doesn’t show up until later and we know nothing about him at that point. We definitely don’t like him, but we also don’t really care as much about Adonis beating him. We want Adonis to win because he’s our protagonist, but at the end of the day, we don’t care who he beats.
Like every film in the Rocky universe, Creed does some things wrong, but it also gives us a lot to like about it (like ALMOST every film in the Rocky universe). The film is perhaps more poetic than any other Rocky installment. And it gives us a proper resolution to Creed’s death in Rocky IV.
These movies often find closure poetically, but Creed tries to accomplish this in a realistic way, which makes it fall short. In some regards, the story fails to find any closure at all, providing us with a couple of loose ends. On the other end, however, the film gives us a couple of the series’ signature “goosebumps” moments.
In many technical aspects, Creed is better than almost every other Rocky movie, but maybe the issue is much of it doesn’t feel like a Rocky movie at all. Which wouldn’t even matter if it didn’t try so hard to be.