Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 28, 2016)
Unlike many successful franchises, we have yet to get a formal reboot of the Rocky series. However, 2015’s Creed acts as a mix of reboot and sequel, as it combines characters from the past with a focus on a young protagonist.
During a prologue set in 1998, we meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Alex Henderson), an orphan housed in a Los Angeles juvenile facility. With a quick temper and powerful fists, Donnie often finds himself in trouble.
Donnie’s life improves when Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) visits him and reveals that her late husband – boxer Apollo Creed – was his father. Despite any dismay Mary Anne may have over her husband’s infidelity, she takes in the boy and raises him in the lap of luxury.
In present day, Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) works a desk job but fights in small-time bouts on the side. Eventually, he tires of this and despite Mary Anne’s protests, he quits to devote all his attention to pugilism.
This sends Donnie to Philadelphia, where he decides to convince his father’s old opponent Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Content to run a restaurant and live a simple life, Rocky resists these entreaties, but he eventually accedes and attempts to form Donnie into a professional boxer. These efforts work well enough that Donnie soon gets a shot to take on champion fighter “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).
When announced, I think Creed inspired some groans. Like 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Creed appeared to offer one too many returns to the well. The Rocky franchise seemed to have run out of steam by 1990’s Rocky V, so it seemed unlikely that greater glories would result.
However, also like Rocky Balboa, Creed enjoyed a good reception. Neither film set box offices on fire, but both turned profits, and both earned solid reviews.
Balboa felt like an appropriate swansong for Rocky, but Creed allows the character to formally pass the torch. Because it posited a then-60-year-old Stallone as a credible pro boxer, Balboa stretched credulity, but it worked, as we bought Rocky’s comeback.
Another prizefighting run for nearly-70-year-old Rocky would’ve really pushed believability, however, so I’m glad they opted to rework the character. Creed’s Rocky clearly adopts the Mickey role from the original films, as Stallone fits the part well. I can’t say he stretches himself in the role, as I think Stallone could play Rocky in his sleep at this point – heck, I think he was asleep during most of the shoot for Rocky IV!
Nonetheless, Stallone still adds warmth and depth to Rocky. He avoids the self-parody that easily could’ve marred his performance – and that did impact the mediocre Rocky V - and gives us a good feel for a Rocky who has evolved over 40 years but who remains true to himself.
Jordan also acquits himself well in the borderline thankless lead role. Face it: even with the movie’s title, most people view Creed as a de facto Rocky sequel. Adonis could’ve been a simple “angry young man”, but Jordan develops more emotion than that. A star on the rise since Fruitvale Station in 2013, Creed demonstrates Jordan’s strengths.
Despite good performances, I must admit Creed leaves me a bit cold. While I think the movie has its moments, it just feels a little uninspired and without real purpose.
That’s partly because Creed often feels like a remake of the original Rocky. Once again, we find characters who box for pennies but who get trained on the streets of Philadelphia before they receive their big breaks. Both enter fights in which they’re involved solely due to publicity reasons and both show the world their strengths. Oh, and they fall in love with local girls along the way.
Sure, Creed twists the plot a little. Unlike Rocky circa 1975, Adonis doesn’t need to fight to make money, and the angry Adonis presents a different vibe than the gentle, chummy Rocky. A few background factors shake up the narrative as well.
But not enough for Creed to ever claim its own personality. Honestly, I can think of only one reason that Creed needs to be connected to the Rocky series: because of it wasn’t, viewers would accuse it of being a Rocky rip-off.
Because of Stallone’s involvement, we can’t accuse Creed of “stealing from Rocky”, but it remains a remake in too many ways, and that disappoints me. Couldn’t the filmmakers have depicted Adonis’s tale in a way that lacked all the parallels with Rocky’s journey? I realize they’re hamstrung when it comes to an ending – we know Adonis will fight well, and we know he’ll either win or lose – but the journey to the climactic battle just doesn’t manage to evolve in a particularly creative way.