Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and Phylicia Rashad
What is gonna be your legacy when you go? Did you do enough in the world, leave a lasting impact to be remembered by the world at large? Are you important enough to those around you to be remembered with fondness? Did you dig yourself up from the dirt and make something of yourself? Were you born with a silver spoon and how did you use it? Legacy has always been an important part of the Rocky franchise as they have grown. Rocky II is all about Apollo Creed frothing at the mouth for a rematch because his legacy has been tarnished due to his fight with Balboa. Rocky III has Rocky believing in his legacy so much that he loses his edge and has to gain it back. Rocky IV has Apollo unable to let go of his legacy as the best fighter ever and gets himself killed. Rocky V doesn’t exist anymore. Rocky Balboa has Rock looking back at his life and craving the life he can’t live anymore without the woman he loved dearly, so he takes one final shot at reclaiming his glory. With that last movie, it seemed like the story of Rocky had ended. His cinematic legacy had been secure 30 years ago, and the movies let him end on a note of bittersweet glory. But what Ryan Coogler had a story he wanted to tell that fit perfectly in the world of Rocky and he has been given the keys to franchise. And what he wanted to do is make a movie about the impact a fathers legacy has on his son. A father that the son never knew.
Apollo Creed is, in the Rocky world, the best fighter to have ever lived. One gets the idea that Muhammad Ali never existed here, leaving the slot open for Creed as the preeminent boxer in the world. So his shadow looms large in the world of boxing. Especially his two fights with Balboa, two of the greatest fights ever. So imagine how that would feel on the shoulder of a son of his. Especially the son born out of an extramarital affair. A son that never met the man, as Apollo died before he was born. A son that spent 14 years in and out of group homes and juvie, before being rescued by Apollo’s wife. A son that has the same drive to fight the father he never met had, but the emotional baggage born out of his tumultuous life. That son would be Adonis, and he has a burning desire to live up his father’s legacy by doing it on his own accord without his fathers name making it easy for him. And to do that, he needs the help of the man Apollo trusted the most. He needs the Italian Stallion, and it turns out the Italian Stallion needs him as well.
What Ryan Coogler has done here is nothing short of phenomenal. He has come into a franchise that Sylvester Stallone controlled for 30 odd years and has seamlessly fit into the world while making a movie all his own. In a series built on the past haunting us and the legacy one makes, he masterfully turns the focus of the series away from Rocky onto a younger generation. It’s a masterful spinoff film, feeling like a natural piece of this Rocky Universe. He also does a great inversion of many elements of the franchise, like making the big fight at the end a similar lucky break based on a name like the original but in it’s own way. Adonis is not Rocky. Where Rocky was a slow but good hearted man from the streets, Adonis is a kid split between two worlds. He’s an angry kid from the streets but he’s also a smart/driven kid from a privileged background. He’s driven but impatient. Cocky but withdrawn. Where Rocky’s goal was simple, to prove that he isn’t a bum, Adonis has much more going on. His desire to fight and make a name for himself isn’t born out of a life not lived like Rocky. Adonis is haunted by the ghost of Apollo. Adonis is a fantastic character, perfectly calibrated to shift the focus of the franchise too. He’s complex and rich and charismatic. Rocky’s journey was one that was very broad and universal, where Adonis’ is very specific. But that works perfectly. The specificity is needed to make this movie stand apart and to make Adonis’ journey his own. A journey that hits the emotions the same way the franchise has done before, but in different ways.
Michael B. Jordan reunites with Coogler, previously having worked together on the fantastic Fruitvale Station, playing Adonis Creed. And this work here by the rising star is absolutely top notch, nailing every inch of the role. All the intricacies and complexity in Adonis is brought to full life by Jordan. It’s every bit as perfect a star making turn as Rocky was for Stallone. Not only does he nail the emotional aspects of Adonis, the physicality on display is massively impressive. Seeing him in the ring is never unbelievable. He has driven himself into absolutely tip top shape, making all the fight scenes absolutely stunning.
Speaking of the fight scenes, Ryan Coogler has somehow delivered the best fight scenes in the entire franchise. The fights at the end of Rocky and Rocky Balboa may be more emotionally resonant than the fight here (though it’s very much emotionally resonant). But the choreography and camera work is all unreal. The fights themselves are the most realistic in the series, feeling very much like real fights. Whereas the other movies featured fights that seemed to be comprised of nothing but unblocked haymakers, this one feels real if still dolled up to be cinematic. And the camera work Coogler achieves is astounding, using long takes and close ups to make the fights feel stunningly immersive. There’s a fight in the middle of the movie that is a two round bout that is shot in one long take. It’s thrilling and completely cinematic. It’s great work and proves that Coogler can deliver cinematic visuals, growing from the verite style of Fruitvale Station. He’s gone 2 for 2 with such masterful movies that show off an immaculate eye for rich storytelling and emotional rides, he’s proven himself to be one of the best young directors working today.
Being the 7th entry in the series he created, we can’t not talk about Stallone. For the first time in the series, he is not in creative control. No directorial duties or writing work. I’m sure he had some input with the character of Rocky, since he’s portrayed him for 40 years now. But his only job here is to play Rocky in a supporting role, and he fucking nails it. Saying it’s a supporting role makes it sound like he’s in it as much as Burgess Meredith was in the original Rocky, seeing as Rocky is now the Mickey esque mentor in the movie. But this is very much a movie about Rocky as well as Adonis. Adonis gets the most time, but Rocky gets just a good chunk of the movie too. It’s been 9 years since his fight with Mason Dixon, and he’s even more isolated than he was then. He has no one and is just living his life until Adonis comes in and upends everything. Rocky just wants to keep to himself. But in Adonis, he sees something worth fighting for. The son of his best friend he lost decades ago, giving him a connection deeper than a shared interest in fighting. And a son he never had, one who shared in the love of boxing and one who wants to learn from Rocky. Before Adonis comes into play, Rock has all but given up on life. Adonis gives him the will to fight again and live life to the fullest. It’s an emotional journey for Rocky, and Stallone has given a career best performance. This isn’t the motormouth Rocky of his youth. Even in Balboa, he was a garrulous man who could believably get in a fight. This is the first time Stallone really looks his age. He’s old and he’s slower and unable to keep up with Adonis. His drive has iced over and life has kicked his ass. Stallone nails every moment of the movie, wringing real emotion out of Rocks situation. It’s a quieter performance and Stallone deserves, at the very least, a best supporting actor nomination.
Creed shouldn’t work. The adage of overly delayed entries in a dormant franchise being crap doesn’t apply to this movie. In fact, the time passed works in the movie’s favor, as this is a series very much about the passage of time. Being a spinoff doesn’t hurt it at all, working in it’s advantage as well. Having Stallone step down from creative control of the series helps it immensely. For as talented as Stallone is, he couldn’t craft a movie about a young black man struggling with the lack of a father figure. This movie is an absolute marvel, a thrilling sports yarn and an emotional character study about an angry young man and an aging legend. Everyone in this movie works at the top of their game to create a new legend in the storied franchise. It’s a true winner and one everyone should see.