How do you create a character with the same endearing nature as Rocky Balboa without just re-making the Rocky story?
That’s the critical question that Creed has to answer, and it does so by not even attempting to be Rocky, and by letting its own protagonist grow in his own right. Donnie Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is a real character with issues and personality traits similar in nature to those of Rock’s, but different in scale and scope. Writer/director Ryan Coogler knows that Creed will draw comparisons to Rocky, but he’s smart enough to not let that bother him. Instead he creates a character and a film which stand on their own merits apart from the Rocky legacy.
Jordan plays Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate son of long-time Rocky Balboa rival/friend Apollo Creed. We first see Donnie as a young teenager growing up in and out of foster homes and juvie, not knowing about his father, until Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) tracks him down and adopts him. Adult Donnie chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps by travelling to Philadelphia and hunting down Rocky Balboa (Stallone), who he convinces to train him out of a sense of obligation. Donnie’s lineage is eventually leaked and he is challenged by disgraced division champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). While preparing Donnie for the fight with Conlan, Rocky is diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and fights his way through chemo at Donnie’s insistence.
Michael B. Jordan continues to be the real deal here, playing Donnie with an effortless mixture of arrogance and vulnerability. There’s a lot to Donnie that Jordan plays just below the surface, with a background that bounced from the streets to a Hollywood Hills mansion. Donnie doesn’t have the same “everyman from the rough part of town” background that Rocky had, and the lack of street cred plays a recurring role. His arc is about proving himself on his own merits while also paying homage to his roots. In this regard, Creed the man is a reflection of Creed the film, and Donnie’s attempts to hide his fears of being in over his head seem to be indicative of the challenges felt by Coogler.
The first time we see Donnie fight, he’s so confident in his abilities that he’s already unlacing his gloves before the countdown is even done. But immediately before the first league match against another trained fighter, he begs Rocky to cut off his gloves so he can run to the bathroom over how freaked out he is. These are just a few of the small way Coogler and Jordan build on Donnie’s personality. Jordan switches his face from determination to fear and back over the span of a sentence. Donnie’s relationships with people out of the ring including Rocky and love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) also give Jordan ample time to endear himself to the audience and flesh out the character.
This isn’t cinematographer Maryse Alberti’s first step inside of a 25-foot ring, she also served as DP on Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Here she displays the same talent for working within a confined and claustrophobic space, but Coogler’s direction is much more bombastic. The film’s most technically impressive sequence ia a single tracking shot which lasts the length of two entire boxing rounds with corner break filled with deliberately slow swooping pans and zooms which put the viewer as close to a live fight as possible. In later matches, Coogler blacks out the crowd, leaving intense lighting and focus on only the competitors. But it’s not just the fights which benefit from Alberti and Coogler’s abilities, the training sessions bounce from dimly-lit garage gyms to sterile-white hospital rooms. The city of Philadelphia itself gets the royal treatment here, depicted as a street-level kingdom full of life and perseverance. The setting captures Donnie and Rocky’s blend of toughness and sensitivity.
It’s this combination of seemingly-incompatible attitudes which make up the core of this story. A good part of the film pits Rocky and Donnie’s relationship as familial in spite of their machismo. The story boils down to two angry and scared men learning to use each other’s stubbornness for mutual benefit. Stallone is putting in the best performance he’s done in years, showing Rocky at his most vulnerable and alone. His initial refusal to undergo chemo also leads to him pushing Donnie away, and Stallone captures a new sort of self-awareness in his character: He knows what he’s done the instant he does it, he just can’t tell why he did it.
Of course a film this steeped in exploration of male ego suffers the female lead for it. Despite Tessa Thompson’s best attempts, Bianca is very little more than set dressing. It is nice that she is as a talented musician and developing artist in her own right, but this is only there long enough for Donnie to interfere in her big break and then dropped. The relationship does benefit from the actors’ natural charisma and Coogler’s ability for writing realistic-sounding young persons’ dialogue, but ultimately it feels tacked on, especially in comparison to the relationship between Rocky and Adrian.
Creed does more than just coast on its pedigree; it homages the legacy that spawned it but also stands firm on its own.
It’s undoubtable that Michael B. Jordan has the ability to carry a whole secondary franchise playing Donnie, but that seems like a secondary goal. There are enough interesting concepts and technical feats to unpack in Creed without worrying about sequel potential. Instead, we’ve got a self-contained movie that adequately caps off the story of a beloved character and gives a complete arc to a great new personality.Liked This? Share It!