A positive act of cultural appropriation, Creed takes the white, working-class Rocky legend and refashions it as a story of African-American identity and resilience. It’s a passing of the baton (with none less than Sylvester Stallone doing the handoff) and also a changing of the color guard.
Co-writer and director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) fashioned a can’t-miss story to make this work: Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of deceased Rocky rival-turned-confidante Apollo Creed, wants to make a name for himself outside of the shadow of his father, whom he resents for dying in the ring before Adonis got to know him. To conquer his personal and professional demons, Adonis moves to Philadelphia under a different name and taps Rocky—still quietly running his restaurant—to train him.
Coogler establishes Adonis’ motivation early on with an ingenious shot: watching footage of his father fighting Rocky on his home-theater screen, Adonis stands up and begins shadow boxing in front of Rocky’s figure, so that it looks like he’s throwing punches his father’s way. From there, the director offers canny touches that stake a cultural claim on the franchise, including incorporating Philadelphia’s infamous urban dirt bike riders into the requisite training montage. His camera pays attention to black bodies, as well, whether it’s Jordan’s athletic physique or Tessa Thompson’s braids. (She plays Bianca, an aspiring musician who lives in the apartment below Adonis.) The film’s defining scene might be the sweet throwaway moment when Rocky, Adonis, and Bianca are sharing ice cream at Rocky’s place after a victorious fight. Rocky eventually stumbles off to bed, conceding the couch and the franchise.
Coogler offers flashier moments, including a bracing opening tracking shot that flashes back to Adonis’ time in a juvenile detention facility as a boy. There is also a bravura central fight sequence that unfolds as a single take; with the camera circling around and even between Adonis and his opponent, we’re trapped, unable to leave the harrowing violence of the ring.
Jordan, who was so good as the real-life Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station, gives a similarly complicated performance here, allowing flickers of uncertainty and vulnerability to play against his exterior bravado. As Bianca, Thompson carves out more space than is usually given to the supportive female character in sports movies—though it’s clear that Coogler is on her side. Bianca and Adonis are both performers, and so it’s nice that she gets a “backstage” scene of her own at one point, before she opens a club show.
As for Stallone, who was nominated for an Oscar, he continues to surprise with an undeniably charming and touching performance. Shuffling around like a sad slab of meat, he’s become an actor who’s fully comfortable with the lack of vanity of this character. I thought Stallone should have hung it up after the minor miracle that was Rocky Balboa, but I’m glad he stuck around to revisit, once again, the myth that made him.