The arrival of a new Rocky movie is sort of a big deal here in Philadelphia — and I know because I’ve been here for every one of ’em. The 1976 original is the undisputed heavyweight of Philadelphia cinema, but you will, of course, find ample goodness to appreciate in Rocky 2 (1979), Rocky 3 (1982), Rocky 4 (1985), Rocky 5 (1990), and Rocky Balboa (2006). While none of those relatively simplistic sequels comes close to replicating the gritty, blue-collar charms of the original film, they work well enough in their own right. And now comes Creed, which is the seventh chapter in the series — and the first to recapture the innate “Phillyness” that makes the original Rocky such an unexpectedly beautiful film.
I’ve taken some grief from local movie geeks in the past — sue me, I think Rocky 4 is a silly mess and that Rocky 5 is pretty darn bad — but I’m always open for another visit from my hometown’s favorite cinematic pugilist. The sixth chapter exhibited a lot more heart than anticipated, which was nice to see, and that brings us to the Rocky franchise’s seventh entry. Good news, fight fans; Ryan Coogler’s Creed may very well be the finest Rocky flick since Part 1. It’s certainly the most sincere.
Fans of the series will get the title right away: Creed is about the estranged son of the the late Apollo Creed, who (as played by Carl Weathers) was one of Rocky’s most memorable foes/loyal friends from years past. Unfortunately it seems that Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) wants nothing to do with his famous father’s legacy — although he does seem to possess his dad’s natural gift for fisticuffs. Unhappy with his Los Angeles office job, and seemingly bored of the affluence provided by his adopted mother, “Donny” decides to hit Philadelphia, look up his dad’s old boxing nemesis, and see if he can’t learn to become a world-class fighter.
So yes; the more cynical movie geeks might say “Oh, so Apollo Creed’s son teams up with Rocky Balboa, got it” because, let’s be fair, this would be a pretty simple way to keep a franchise rolling while at the same time re-inventing it for a new generation. (At least that’s what I thought when the project was first announced.) But that’s why we wait for the finished films instead of simply spouting knee-jerk reactions. (Right?) I’ll say it again: Creed is the finest Rocky movie since the original Rocky. Well-written, great performances, beautifully shot, you name it. And, again, this is coming from a Philly guy.
The reason that Creed works so well is actually quite simple: by shifting the central focus away from the still-adorable Rocky, the character becomes more compelling than he’s been in years. Good ol’ Rocky has become a supporting character in his own series, and it’s a gamble that pays off remarkably well. Michael B. Jordan is simply fantastic as the young Creed; the subtle screenplay allows the actor to be angry but not ignorant, wealthy but not obnoxious, and naive but never stupid. Jordan and Stallone strike a quick and fluid chemistry together, which is essential, but Mr. Coogler (and co-writer Aaron Covington) also make sure to give their main character a hearty collection of character-building moments. There’s also a really sweet romance subplot between Creed and his neighbor (a great Tessa Thompson) that adds a lot of character to the potentially familiar proceedings.
And that’s sort of what makes Creed so impressive. At its core it’s just another sports movie — and hell, a Part 7, no less — but there’s a strong and sincere foundation that one generally doesn’t find in lazier Hollywood productions. Kudos to Stallone for ceding the reins of his beloved series to someone else, and congratulations to Coogler & Co. for maintaining the heart, soul, and class that made Rocky so beloved in the first place. You’ve done Philly proud with this one.