Although sports movies generally offer one of two endings for the protagonist—win or lose—the true outcome is seldom so binary. Face it; in Hollywood, even the losers win. Moral victory, spiritual victory, validatory victory—it’s rare when the big third-act contest ends as an utter and unequivocal defeat, the protagonist lying on the ground a shattered, bleeding, weeping sack of crushed humanity. After all, this is America. We don’t like losers. (Helps to imagine the previous two sentences spoken in a Trump accent. If you can stomach it, that is.)
This proliferation of formula, though, makes the Rocky franchise interesting to contemplate. While the films themselves consistently indulge in either the win or lose-but-really-win blueprint, the overall character arc of Rocky Balboa doesn’t strictly adhere to any well-worn guidelines. Rocky always seems to be a little worse off than when we last saw him; get to the end of one Rocky movie and there’s a good chance that things will be all shitty for the guy by the time the next one starts. No comfort arises from a freeze frame of Balboa standing arms raised and triumphant in the ring—the further along in his series we go, the more downtrodden Rocky appears. It’s an oddly realistic trajectory for a professional boxer.
Well, okay, maybe “realistic” isn’t the best choice of words, seeing as how this is a guy who defeats Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and communism all within the span of two movies. But I’m laboring to think of another cinematic icon we’ve seen age and struggle like Rocky Balboa has over the past four decades. And I’m almost certain I’ve never seen a series focused entirely upon one central character pivot and make this figure a supporting player in order to continue the saga, abruptly placing the emphasis on a younger, brighter, better hero. But that’s exactly what we get with director Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a fun but uneven reinvigoration of the Rocky series. The latest downturn in Rocky’s life sees him taking a backseat within his own franchise, yet Coogler handles this passing of the torch from Sylvester Stallone to Michael B. Jordan with prowess and finesse. No, Creed can’t quite move beyond the old plot parameters we’ve come to expect from sport movies in general, and Rocky movies in particular, but damn does it look good playing within those lines.
Creed follows Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s greatest frenemy, Apollo Creed. Orphaned after his parents’ deaths—Creed died in the ring in Rocky IV, his mom a few years after—a ten-year-old Adonis gets rescued from juvenile hall by Apollo’s wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and is given a chance at a better life (apparently Mary Anne invested Apollo’s winnings very, very well.) Fast forward to eighteen years later, and Donnie is miserable working a white-collar job, moonlighting as a prizefighter in seedy Mexican bars. Much to Mary Anne’s chagrin, Donnie quits his 9-to-5 in order to head to Philadelphia and train full-time, hell-bent on getting the long-retired Rocky Balboa to teach him how to be a champion. Things go well for Johnson—he eventually convinces Rocky to mentor him, he meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), the cute girl downstairs from his apartment—until word gets out about his dad’s identity. Then it’s no longer just about Adonis becoming a fighter; he now has to live up to the reputation of his father, a man he never knew but whose shadow he can’t escape.
What Creed gets right comes from the trio at the film’s core: Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone. Jordan’s a remarkable talent—good to see he’s emerged unscathed from this summer’s Fantastic Four fiasco—and as Adonis he brings a palpable energy to the film, equal parts angst and youthful exuberance. (It doesn’t hurt that his appearance matches his mythological name; Jordan looks every inch of the prize fighter he’s supposed to be.) Yet, despite Donnie’s rock-hard exterior, Jordan shines during the quieter moments. The script, written by Coogler and Aaron Convington, wisely refrains from making Adonis a bristly, rage-fueled antihero. Rather, he’s kind of a sweetheart, and some of the most striking scenes come not in the boxing ring but in the normality of Adonis’s everyday life: the way he gently brushes Bianca’s hair, him chowing down on his morning bowl of Cocoa Pebbles, his doting on Rocky once the second act complications take hold. Johnson’s driven, no doubt, but Coogler allows the film room to breathe, giving us ample time to get to know the young boxer instead of turning the plot into a myopic quest for glory.
After last year’s Fruitvale Station, though, we’re expecting a certain level of quality coming from Coogler and Jordan. What’s more surprising is Stallone. Granted, the man’s been playing Rocky Balboa since the Ford Administration, so he should have the character down pat by now. But Stallone gives an eye-opening performance here, supplying an emotional heft missing from the series since the very first film. Years of action schlock have made it easy to forget just how nuanced and moving an actor Stallone can be, and Creed shows he still has the chops that made him such an endearing screen presence some forty years earlier. Stallone’s at his best in Creed—you see every fight in Rocky’s sleepy, dazed expression, hear every landed haymaker in his amiable, marble-mouthed mumble. Yet Stallone comes off as eager and grateful to have a new face for the franchise, giving his most famous role a mellow punch-drunk fatherliness firmly rooted in a genuine affection for this new direction.
Where Creed stumbles is with its adherence to a tried-and-true formula, matching the story beats of the earlier Rocky films note-for-note. The film follows a frustratingly predictable arc, relying so much on traditional structure you almost expect title cards to appear delineating the transitions between acts. Coogler supplies Creed with loads of style and panache—the much-ballyhooed single-take boxing match deserves every bit of praise it’s receiving—yet too often the movie feels like a fresh coat of paint on an old sedan, offering conflict and resolution in familiar patterns, never sticking a toe outside of its thematic comfort zone.
Plus, Creed resolutely refuses to pull back from the mythical drama and glory of professional boxing to take a critical look at the larger issues plaguing the sport. The roles race and poverty play in prizefighting receive only a cursory mention, as do the needless and inherent risks of undertaking a career where you spend a good deal of time getting punched in the head. And the overwhelming greed that undermines every aspect of boxing in real life—the millions of dollars paid out for worthless fights, the parasitic promoters manipulating pay-per-view fees and marginally talented fighters, the regulatory commissions willing to look past serious injuries and rampant doping in order to provide the most lucrative spectacle—has little to do with Coogler’s sanitized take. While Donnie’s worthiness as a marquee fighter does play into the plot, this quest for affirmation unfolds as a personal journey for Johnson, not an insightful look at the broken system of promoting modern blockbuster bouts. Creed renders boxing as romantic and noble, which is as about as far from verisimilitude as you can get with the current state of the sport.
Still, you don’t generally head into a Rocky movie jonesing for realism, and the same now can be said for the sure-to-be-forthcoming Creed series. It’s crowd-pleasing feel-good entertainment, a source of communal sports catharsis that turns the divisive nature of competition into a unifying push for the underdog. Coogler isn’t intent on provocation, but rather celebration, showing a profound respect for an aging franchise while redirecting it towards the future. If only next time he can bring a story as inspired as the performances he gets out of Jordan and Stallone.