IF YOU HAVE a special place in your heart for the 1976 Oscar winner Rocky, and firmly believe it was never topped by any of its five sequels—yes, even the beloved Rocky III with Mr. T—you and I are in agreement, and have much to discuss. More than any of the films that followed, Sylvester Stallone's Rocky had a very particular and sweet tone. It was less about training montages and battling steroid-pumped Ruskies, and more about broken people fighting to be somewhat less broken. It had an aura of perfect simplicity—which is why it pierced our hearts and guts, and why it was never successfully equaled... until, perhaps, now.
Creed is the latest entry in the Rocky franchise, though it's the first that doesn't include a writing credit from Stallone. It probably took a lot of nerve for the star to allow relative newcomer Ryan Coogler (who gave us 2013's excellent Fruitvale Station) to take the directorial reins—but the payoff is oh-so-worth it. Creed is not only a loving homage to Rocky, it builds upon the legend while maintaining the original film's heart and purity.
Michael B. Jordan—of Fruitvale Station and Friday Night Lights—plays young Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky's original nemesis and friend, Apollo Creed. Bouncing around juvie halls, Adonis is eventually adopted by the late Creed's wife (Phylicia Rashad) and raised in luxury—but that does little to quell the anger boiling inside. Boxing in shoddy Mexican bars, Adonis decides to go professional, and convinces a reticent, slow, and gray Rocky Balboa (a slow and gray Stallone) to train him. And when the world discovers Adonis is actually a Creed? It isn't long until the still-green fighter is face-to-face in the ring with a terrifyingly experienced world champion.
Kind of a familiar plotline, right? Obviously, with a story like this, Creed could have gone horribly wrong—and yet? Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington's subtle script miraculously captures the spirit of the original Rocky. Each of the characters, from Adonis, to his newfound girlfriend Bianca (an impressive Tessa Thompson), to Rocky himself, are broken, either by their pasts or their futures—or, occasionally, both. And it's this fight to become unbroken that propels Creed forward, and turns the climactic fight scene (which we all know is coming) into a stomach-clenching classic.
For diehard and well-versed Rocky fans, Creed has a believable, street-wise attitude and plenty of callbacks to the original film—and while none are overtly heavy-handed, some do work better than others. If there is any criticism to be found for Creed, it's the film's almost slavish devotion to the original material: The story of Adonis hews a bit too close to Rocky's own origin, making Creed sometimes feel like just a sly remake. The film could've been better served if it had a more complicated, robustly developed main character that diverged from this well-worn path.
But that's a minor quibble, to say the least. If you loved the original Rocky—and its heart, and the sometimes unbearable tension it provided—Creed is a fun and worthy film-going experience. And an exception to the rule that lightning never strikes in the same place twice.