There’s a great scene early on in Creed, a sequel/spin-off to the Rocky films, where Adonis ‘Donnie’ Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s late friend Apollo Creed, sits down in the private cinema in his mother’s house – a reminder of the materialistic profits gained by his father in his pugilistic life and ultimate death – to watch Rocky and his father fight for the first time. Adonis stands up to shadowbox alongside the film, only he copies not the movements of his father, bur rather of Rocky as he pins Apollo into a corner and lands a flurry of punches. Creed’s director, Ryan Coogler (who also directed Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station) wanted to highlight that Adonis did not have a healthy way of dealing with his father’s involuntary absence.
Unsurprisingly, the film truly kicks into gear with the appearance of Stallone’s Rocky himself, still running the small Italian restaurant named after his wife, who died from cancer years before. What is surprising, perhaps given Stallone’s recent obsession with churning out Expendables sequels, is his subtle and moving performance. He shows that while on the outside Rocky is still the happy former Heavyweight Champion of the World, always waving at those who recognise him, deep down he is man who having taken brutal punches all his life, discovers that the most brutal punch of all is the realisation that all your loved ones have gone and you’re all alone.
The film, like Rocky, only explicitly mentions this awareness just once, in an emotional showdown with Adonis, whom he naturally starts to see as a son, but the lingering implication is always there. Just as the closest Adonis can get to his father is by watching his old fights, so too Rocky can only feel close to his loved ones by visiting their graves, maintaining restaurants named after them and leaving their rooms untouched.
Creed is an intelligent and emotional evolution of the Rocky saga. Donnie’s neighbour, and later love interest, Bianca, is a talented musician who has progressive hearing loss. She doesn’t have much time until her body prevents her from doing the one thing that brings her joy. This is a clear theme of the movie: people seeking to find comfort or joy in the very things that can hurt them the most. Just as Bianca seeks to make music, knowing full well that in several years she’ll be deprived of that joy, so too will Adonis pursue a career in boxing, knowing deep down that even though it will physically hurt him and potentially kill him, it will still help him deal with the loss of the father he never knew.
All of this is not to say that Creed has little connection to the previous films other than Rocky’s appearance. Even then, that would have been enough, given the depth of the character and Stallone’s performance. Fittingly though, Creed still retains the hallmarks of a Rocky film: the ‘shot at the champ’ storyline, the training montages, the numerous shots of Philly streets, the steps, the goose-bump music, it’s all there.
Coogler has managed what many directors at the helm of sequels fail to do: he not only recaptures the heart and soul of what made the original great, he also evolves the legacy to show the consequences both positive and negative of everything that happened in previous chapters and explores his own new paths. Just like Adonis ultimately does, Coogler embraces the name of the Rocky films, but in his own personal way. 4/5