You’d be forgiven if, when you heard they were rebooting the “Rocky” franchise, you groaned and rolled your eyes. I certainly did. At this point, it’s easy to be cynical about the Hollywood sequel-making machine, but when done right, a film franchise can still provide unique pleasures. “Creed” follows the lead of James Bond and his recent run of excellent franchise films. For much of its runtime, the film is a glorified but expertly-crafted work of fan service, satisfying older fans of the “Rocky” series while still functioning as a stand-alone piece of pop art. It’s also one of the best commercial films of the year.
“Creed” starts off on unfamiliar ground, with Rocky Balboa nowhere in sight. Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis “Donny” Johnson, son of Rocky’s opponent-turned friend Apollo Creed. Unlike the working-class hero of old, Donny has a good job in some corporate office in L.A., but he burns with the same competitive fire as his father. His frequent trips to Mexico, where he fights in an underground boxing league, have failed to satisfy his ambitions, so he packs up and moves to Philadelphia to learn from his father’s old friend.
The story beats will feel awfully familiar. Donny tracks down his “uncle” Rocky, and, after being initially turned down, he convinces the retired pugilist to be his coach. Training montages ensue, and hints of the old “Rocky” theme nibble at the soundtrack. There is a girl, of course: Bianca (Tessa Thompson, from last year’s “Dear White People”), a Philadelphia native who is struggling with her own physical challenge, a progressive hearing loss that threatens her burgeoning singing career.
The comparison of Bianca’s hearing loss to Creed’s physical risks in the ring is an important one, as they help “Creed” reference but ultimately sidestep the ethical concerns with boxing (and other sports). Donny faces injury and possibly death in the ring, but the film treats never questions his choices. His need to fight is as much a fact-of-life as Bianca’s hearing loss, even if his motivation is existential not physical. His father conceived Donny in an extra-marital affair and died before he was born. Writer/director Ryan Coogler successfully frames Donny’s journey as a universal quest for identity, which infuses film’s climactic fight, against a predictably superior opponent, with enormous personal stakes.
Although each plot point comes telegraphed (not just from earlier films but even within this one), “Creed” succeeds in part on the back of its sterling technical filmmaking. There are two big fights in the movie, and Coogler gives each its own unique visual character. He shoots the first in one long, miraculous take, capturing with narrow focus Donny’s point of view in his first high-stakes bout. The second, climactic fight is a flurry of edits and perspectives, utilizing every trick of his directorial trade.
Perhaps the best trick of all is the performance by Stallone, who, liberated from the pressures of stardom, shows previously-untapped vulnerability and humor in a supporting role. Oscar prognosticators have already penciled him in for gold, and it wouldn’t be undeserved. Jordan is the emotionally-still center of the film, but Stallone provides the beating heart. When Rocky struggles with illness in the second half, it should ring as a false not of stakes-raising, but Stallone’s softly endearing performance makes it stick.
Despite all this crowd-pleasing, “Creed” might also be the racial film our society needs right now. Some critics wondered why, after the powerful racial statement of his debut film “Fruitvale Station,” about the real-life shooting of an unarmed black man by the San Francisco police, Coogler would turn so quickly to the Hollywood franchise machine. Was it just a good career move? Watching “Creed” today, with two more years of racial injustice gone by, it seems instead like a natural extension of his prior work. Recasting the iconic white, working-class hero as an icon of black Philadelphia is a revelatory paradigm shift, and I’m sure Coogler took some satisfaction in creating an American movie hero who also happens to be a black man in a hoodie.
My Rating: See it in the Theater