It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that initially most people probably had bad flashbacks to Rocky V, when they learned about the existence of Creed. An old and retired Rocky taking a young buck under his wing and training him to box? We’ve been here before and last time we did this, the results were less than flattering. Fortunately, it works a lot better this time around, as the movie isn’t about Rocky trying to relive his glory days through a surrogate boxer that is a complete nobody to the audience. The movie also focuses on being a modern remake of the first installment in the Rocky saga, featuring a protagonist, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, who we learn to is Apollo Creed’s love child out of wedlock, a move that goes a far way to lend the movie a sense legitimacy and legacy.
As a boxing movie, Creed is entirely okay. Not great, but decent. It takes a lot of its cues from Rocky I, but it doesn’t quite manage to re-capture the magic of the original due to the distinct lack of grit, heart and certain inherent desperation of the 1976 version. Donnie, after all, comes from reasonable wealth and had a cushy banking job before he decides to quit and move to Philly to pursue his dream of wearing colorful boxers in a ring and get punched in the face for extended periods of time. It’s harder to relate to him than it was with Rocky, as the underdog aspect feels to certain point unauthentic, even after it’s made clear in the story that Adonis wants to make it on his own and tries to keep his connection to the world famous Apollo Creed on the down-low as much as possible, succeeding on his own merit. The crux to Donnie’s passion for boxing is obviously his mixed relationship with his deceased father, whom he never got to meet because of Dolph Lundgren killing Apollo in the ring at the start of Rocky IV. While the ghost of Apollo is very clearly is hanging in the background for the entire duration of the movie, it’s only much later on in the story that Donnie’s mixed feelings towards Apollo starts to find proper traction and development, which in turn finally starts to make Creed Jr. more well rounded and interesting as a lead protagonist. Before that, Donnie’s road to fame and glory is a bit generic and nothing particularly engaging, and he can come off a little like just another shallow wannabe trying to hang onto like his daddy’s fame.
As it’s fitting of a fighter movie, the matches and the training are obviously the highlights of the entire picture. They’re filled with energy and fun, even the reenactment of the iconic running through the neighborhood segment from Rocky is cute enough to not turn sour on you, despite it being really, really cheesy moment. Michael B. Jordan looks pretty good as a ripped boxer and there’s a good chemistry between him and Stallone once they begin their mentor/protégé relationship properly. I must say, Stallone in particular is surprisingly good in this. It’s the first time in years where Sly genuinely feels like he’s acting with a capital A, and seems passionate about the role, rather than doing a very mediocre, run of the mill action star performance. The sick older mentor trope is a horrible cliché admittedly, but you can’t help but to get a bit choked up during the more emotional bits. They really know how to manipulate you with the sad and emotionally engaging parts.
Though not entirely satisfying, I don’t really have many issues with the movie. It can be a bit slow at times, and it doesn’t fully live up to being a great remake. But you don’t really experience the same level of resentment that you typically would for a franchise that has been around for forty years and has had this many sequels already. Probably the most annoying bit in the entire thing is the token love subplot that feels entirely tacked on, adding nothing particularly interesting or unique to the overall plot. It feels like it’s only there because Rocky had Adrian had their romance in the original movie, so Donnie needed a pretty girl to pine over and have somebody to talk to before he hooks up with Rocky. I’m actually a bit conflicted because Tessa Thompson was entirely fine in her role, and her little “I’m an aspiring musician who is slowly going deaf, I have to make the most of the time I have, isn’t it tragic and sort of similar with your boxer career pipe dream, Donnie?”character angle, that while a bit on the nose, at least gave her some uniqueness as a character, but that doesn’t change the fact that for most of the story, she just kinda exists there in the corner without contributing anything particularly noteworthy to the story in any interesting way. She’s more of a springboard for Donnie, so it’d be less of a homoerotic sausage fest between all of the male bonding that’s going on with Stallone and Johnson.
Finally, I’m not ashamed to admit I was a bit teary-eyed during the whole final match, when the familiar horns of the Rocky theme started playing. It perfectly synthesized what made Creed work as a movie: it mixes the old with the new and manages to manipulate you with nostalgia at all the right places, while also making you want to cheer for the new kid. There’s already been much talk about doing a fast sequel, and I’m down with that and hope they can come up with something relatively compelling as the story, they can’t just keep rehashing old Rocky plots. Though, now that I think about it, it’d kinda be fun if they managed to find a way to bring Dolph Lundgren back as Ivan Drago in some shape or form. Who wouldn’t pay to see that? Honestly, just doing a Drago movie that rehashes the Creed formula with a small extra gimmick, like say Ivan and/or Rocky training his daughter to be a boxer to give it that additional One Million Dollar Baby vibe might be dope too.