Sports movies, let alone boxing movies, have developed a reputation for being cliched and predictable, with few productions challenging this fact in recent years. Ryan Coogler’s interpretation of the genre succeeds not by defying its conventions, but by enhancing the characters who inhabit it, and making them more human in the process.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of the late boxing legend Apollo Creed, who died defending his heavyweight title in a match decades earlier. “Donnie”, as he calls himself, never met his father, and his biological mother passed away while he was a child, leaving him homeless and destitute before being found by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) who adopted and raised Donnie as her own son.
As an adult, Donnie is living comfortably in Los Angeles with an office job, yet cannot shake his ambition to follow in Apollo’s footsteps and become a full-time boxer. He has won several amateur bouts across the border in Tijuana, giving him the confidence to turn professional; unfortunately, none of the local boxing academies will sponsor Donnie, so the aspiring pugilist heads to the East coast.
Donnie’s new city of residence is Philadelphia, where he hopes to gain the mentorship of the world-famous Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a former heavyweight champion and friend of Apollo. Nowadays a mild-mannered restauranteur, Rocky initially declines a request to train Donnie, but after seeing his determination and abilities, the “Italian Stallion” agrees to become the young fighter’s coach, believing he has the makings of a title-holder.
The inclusion of cinema’s most celebrated athlete is no accident, because Creed is officially the seventh instalment in the Rocky franchise, appearing nine years after the sixth film, Rocky Balboa. To reinforce this connection, motifs of the series are present and constant, being found in Ludwig Goransson’s score – which houses elements of Bill Conti’s original soundtrack – and the plot, which utilises the same template as most other sports movies.
Yet for every familiar element to be found, there is just as much originality, with the character of Adonis being an example of the latter. Donnie is a man with a very conflicted identity – he is proud of being Apollo’s son and wants to honour his legacy, but equally wants to pay tribute to his late mother and use her surname. By using the name Creed, he is guaranteed of stardom, but guilty of nepotism; by being Adonis Johnson, he can make it big on his own terms, but that success isn’t guaranteed.
The relationship between Adonis and Rocky is another fresh component of Creed. Throughout the movie, both men are warm and congenial to each other, especially during the earliest parts of the film, when Balboa refuses an offer to become a coach in the most polite and gracious way possible, and Donnie responds in a similarly courteous manner. It is only during the third act of the movie that a strain in their bond appears, and a pretty hackneyed one at that.
Also adding to Creed’s creativity is the romance between the central protagonist and his love -interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). There’s a genuine sweetness to the way Donnie courts Bianca, demonstrating that the born fighter has a gentler, more civil side to him. Much like his relationship with Rocky, the only thing that separates Donnie from Bianca is some egregiously contrived conflict toward the last third of the movie that is resolved just minutes later.
The biggest drawcard of any Rocky film is the boxing, and Creed is no exception. Each and every fight is brilliantly choreographed, beautifully photographed and highly realistic, giving one the impression that they are watching an actual bout, or a close resemblance to it. Furthermore, much of the action is filmed in close proximity to the fighters, and some rounds are shot in a single take, which adds not just to the realism, but the excitement too.
Creed has a very familiar story, but it’s a film made special by the humanity added to that story – a protagonist who struggles with his identity, a mentor with a tender soul, and a lover won over by civility. When coupled with the boxing, it makes for quite a fascinating feature indeed.