Nostalgia can be difficult to use in a film. Making references to earlier films, characters, etc. can be a great nod for older fans but can be empty for newer viewers. And if you’re borrowing too much, the winks and nods turn the film into a rehashing of the past. Look at the Back to the Future films–the second largely plays as a successful sequel, in part because of its nodding to the first film, but the third plays as a film with zero new ideas, because the winks and nods have now taken over.
Creed, as essentially the seventh Rocky film, has plenty of nostalgia to play with. And as much as the series has been a source of humor for its endless series of sequels, it has typically been a series built of its time, one that until its final entry never really cared about its past self. Rocky III includes Mr. T and a cameo from Hulk Hogan but isn’t full of references to the previous two films. Rocky IV‘s closest thing to a winking reference is that Survivor provides the theme song to the training montage again (and it’s very nearly the same song as “Eye of the Tiger”). They go back to some of the same plot points again and again but it’s not to make us laugh at the reference–it’s because they’re simplistic, basic plots that go exactly where makes the most melodramatic sense.
Rocky Balboa was the first film that acted aware of the previous films, bringing back minor characters who hadn’t been seen for thirty years and filling up with references to Rocky’s minor foibles that we could remember from 1976. The entire film was so drenched in nostalgia that it didn’t really offer anything else. It was Stallone saying a sad goodbye to his most famous character and inviting us along for the ride. Creed is closer to Rocky Balboa in this spectrum than to the previous films, but it also attempts to reboot the franchise with a new lead character and put Rocky in a new position, which leaves it in the odd position that it invites us to re-enter the Rocky franchise behind Adonis Creed by saying, “Remember this? That was great!” every few scenes.
The film’s plot is pretty simple: Apollo Creed turns out to have fathered an illegitimate son who wasn’t born until after his death. The son, Adonis, spends years shuttling through the foster system, getting in fights and saying that he has no father, until Creed’s wife takes him in. But he still wants to fight. So, in his adulthood, he turns away from a financial career to become a boxer, seeking out his father’s best friend’s help. Unsurprisingly, he quickly gets a shot at the world’s top boxer and performs surprisingly well, losing a split decision in the final round. Along the way, he falls in love. That first sentence makes the rest of the plot so obvious that a child could have scripted it. It’s just Rocky with a new lead character.
Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti don’t have any new visual ideas, either. The film is mostly naturalistic, with intentionally muted colors and no dramatic use of light and shadow. Much of it is outside in overcast weather surrounded with dull concrete and old brick–it looks like Rocky with new characters. That said, the scene of Adonis Creed boxing as Rocky in front of the projected fight is a fantastic and arresting image.
The strongest point of this film is its acting. Michael B. Jordan takes on the role of Adonis Creed with gusto and gives him some thought and depth that really isn’t apparent in the dialogue. He could easily have done an impersonation of Carl Weathers’s performance in Rocky but instead he did something new–Adonis doesn’t really know why he feels the need to fight or why he wants to hold his father at a distance and while he never says that, it’s written across his face scene by scene. Sylvester Stallone lets his age show for the first time in his life, and that allows him to open himself up and show some general vulnerability that makes him appealing in a way that he never has been before. He’s not perfect–until he gets sick in the third act, he moves amazingly well and easily for someone who’s been through the punishment in life that Rocky has. The only other person with significant screen time is Tessa Thompson, who is a completely flat, dull character–she has nothing to do but look pretty (which she admittedly does exceedingly well), so it’s tough to praise her much.
Ludwig Göransson’s score is a complete mess for most of the film. It’s trying to update the Rocky series by mixing the way that Bill Conti once mixed orchestral scoring with jazz with a more modern R&B/hip-hop sound, but they often don’t mix well and even the times when it just sticks to Conti mimicry don’t work well. The only times it really works are when they just make hip-hop music to make it Adonis Creed’s film, leaving Rocky behind.
All told, Creed is a fun movie for a Rocky fan, but it’s one that completely lacks anything for anyone else. It’s an empty nostalgia trip trying to hand the Rocky series off from Sylvester Stallone to Michael B. Jordan that sets the stage well for future entries to be better.
- There’s something interesting about the idea that this is a black version of Rocky. The original film is not lily-white, but all of the major characters are white, and this time we’re following a black man and seeing him surrounded largely (though not exclusively) by other black people. I’m not sure if Coogler was trying to tell us something with that, but it’s possible that it was some statement about race in modern America.
- Look at the way Michael B. Jordan walks after his last fight. That’s really how Rocky should be walking in general before he gets sick. It’s not a huge deal, but that’s something someone should have told Stallone to change.
- Bianca’s music is really, really awful. So awful. It made me want to leave the theater.
- Stallone was good, and he tried, but very, very few actors have ever been as charming as Burgess Meredith, so the fact that he’s now directly replacing Mickey was still hard to take.