Creed is a surname: that of Rocky Balboa’s most famous opponent from Rockys I through IV, when Carl Weathers’s character Apollo was killed off, and now that of his son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). Adonis Creed is a new challenger, a new hero – a new Rocky, essentially – with his father’s legacy fixed heavy on his shoulders.
Creed’s also a noun, of course, meaning a system of beliefs, a set of rules to abide by. This seventh film in the Rocky series sticks to the creed they all do: it knows how well the formula works, what’s needed to reinvigorate it, and gets the whole apparatus pumping as well here as it has in a generation.
It helps to have a reliable trainer putting both Adonis and his movie through their paces – none other than that old prize pony Sylvester Stallone himself. It’s the first film in the series which Sly’s neither written nor directed. But his actor-for-hire status translates into a compelling lack of vanity on screen.
It’s one of his best performances – worlds away from the grimacing heroics of the Expendables franchise. Life for Rocky, a widower in declining health, has come full circle, and he finds himself essentially occupying the function of Burgess Meredith from the first three films: ringside vaseline application, with some salty wisdom and pathos thrown in.
The opening stretches of the film bide their time, and then some. You could be forgiven for wanting to hustle it into the ring and stop gabbing so much. There’s a Los Angeles prologue with young Adonis (Alex Henderson), scenes with his stepmother (Phylicia Rashad), and then grown Adonis – Donnie to his friends – ups sticks to Philadelphia, once he’s decided to bin an office job and get serious about prize-fighting.
Rocky, his father’s old nemesis, takes some talking round before agreeing to help Donnie train. New neighbour Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a fiery R&B artist pumping out sounds downstairs, also needs significant persuasion before agreeing to date him. This adds up to a lot of talking, around or otherwise, and almost a full hour of glum preamble. It makes you nervous.
Writer-director Ryan Coogler made a belter – if a necessary downer – of a debut with 2013’s Fruitvale Station, about the killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by Californian transport police. By porting his leading man over directly, he gives this film’s far superior second half a cathartic oomph, or redemptive life drive.
Things wake up from the first training montage, thanks to Coogler’s punchy editing and hip-hop showmanship: it’s one of three such sequences, all flatly impossible to resist. Though the script is structured around just two set-piece fights, they burst into your consciousness with such vigour, colour and clout those first-half nerves are dispelled, and in the nick of time.
The first match, between Donnie and a strutting blowhard called Stuntman (super-middleweight champ Andre Ward) is the film’s galvanising knockout. The opening round is all done in one take, circling around the also-circling fighters. This currently-in-vogue trick, seized upon most famously by Birdman, will soon start feeling too gimmicky by half, but it has very specific value and impact in the context of sport: you feel the winding effect of every lunge and swing on the stamina of the players.
A palpable endurance test, it’s as close to real as staged boxing in cinema can get, and certainly a massive upgrade on the negligible Southpaw.
The climax, a much-hyped showdown with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan – great, unforced work from Liverpudlian pugilist Tony Bellew – is a more protracted, round-by-round affair, owing a lot (including the way the decision falls) to Rocky endings past. Coogler serves it up with muscle and commitment: you suspect he spent as long cutting this one sequence together as the entire first hour.
Jordan really comes into his own, too, supplying a grit and intuition in the ring that pulls us into Donnie as a character better – despite Thompson’s helpfully snappy support – than anything he’s doing outside it. For the real emotional pay-off, though, there’s a gem of a coda, involving Philly’s famous Rocky steps, and a guy climbing them whose legs aren’t as nimble as they used to be.
Like the 69-year-old Stallone hoisting his frame gingerly into play, Creed takes a while to move. But by the end, it’s genuinely moving.