People never expect sequels to be good.
People especially don't expect the seventh film in a franchise to be good. Technically, Creed isn't just the seventh movie in the Rocky franchise, it's the start of a spin-off franchise to the Rocky franchise. Among many of my fellow cinephiles, hopes were not high for Creed- even with director/writer Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan handling the movie after they teamed up for the great Fruitvale Station.
I am happy to report that most of the doubters' fears were misplaced. Even if a few familiar narrative beats hinder character relationships, Creed is a well-directed triumph and a worthy follow up to Rocky.
Ryan Coogler's directorial touches are evident right from the first minute. Fruitvale Station was only his first feature film, but with it he immediately established that he's a director who cares about character and theme. That movie was as much an in-depth character study of the real life Oscar Grant (one of the first innocent victims in a long line of recorded cop-on-black violence) as it was a criticism of the culture surrounding his death.
Coogler's direction and screenplay- co-written with his friend Aaron Covington- continue this artistic flourish. It begins with a young Adonis Creed fighting another boy at a juvenile detention center; an angry fire in his eyes at far too young an age. He's paid a visit by the famous Apollo Creed's widowed wife, who is looking to take him in.
From this first conversation with Adonis, Coogler establishes the two pillars of Creed: Adonis' identity as a fighter at heart, and the theme of overcoming. The movie's genius lies in its stable reliance on these two pillars.
It is technically a Rocky movie after all. Like the original Rocky (admittedly the only other movie in the franchise I've seen, so longtime franchise fans are free to take my words with some degree of earned skepticism), Creed elevates fighting against an opponent from a part of the story to the story, injecting every facet of its narrative with some element of fighting past an obstacle: from familial problems to relationships to self-identity to bouts in the ring.
After Fruitvale Station, Michael B. Jordan dabbled in the realms of mediocre comedy (That Awkward Moment) and cinematic disaster (Fant4stic), but he's back in great form for Creed. His is a serious performance. He exudes the passion and frustration of both a professional fighter and a scorned son consistently and with a cogent maturity. In the ring, Jordan is imposing yet vulnerable; with loved ones he is guarded yet sensitive. His portrayal of a conflicted Creed makes a good case for a successful acting career.
The real surprise here, though, is Sylvester Stallone's terrific return as Rocky Balboa. Over the years, Stallone has played caricatures of himself time and time again in numerous action movies- it has become easy to forget that he can be a talented actor. It was somewhat of a shock to see him pour his heart and soul into a role for the first time in a while.
Perhaps it's because the Rocky franchise was his brainchild and it quite literally brought him from rags to riches. Whatever the reason, Stallone is an absolute joy as Rocky Balboa once again. The movie gives him plenty to do: from training Adonis to struggling through his own personal fight, Stallone excels as the grizzled fighter. Good to have Balboa back.
While speaking of all things Rocky, there are a lot of callbacks to the original franchise, but they're handled gracefully. Creed never feels too nostalgic about its father franchise- it's a new beast- but there's plenty for old fans to dissect.
The direction frequently feels triumphant. Tracking shots during training are inspiring, the classic Rocky theme is perfectly placed, and one key fight is miraculously done in one long take. The long shot is done so naturally that I didn't even notice it was one at first.
I can't say the same for the screenplay. Creed's central relationships feel forced and contrived for the sake of typical narrative beats. Rocky Balboa trains Adonis Creed because the plot says so, but their dialogue exchanges only occasionally feel raw or convincing. Adonis' love interest never feels like a fully written human being: she exists to inspire him from the sidelines, and their relationship never rings true either.
Coogler's focus on theme thrives in Creed's spectacle, but his focus on character interaction suffers in it. When handling self-identity, Coogler's characters have a lot of meat to wrestle through. When they interact with each other, it's just to advance the story.
In the end, the spectacle is memorable and artful enough to result in a victorious movie. This is the first movie in the franchise that Stallone didn't write, but I can't imagine him not being proud of it. Creed has earned the right for this new franchise to box on.