Can you take me higher? To a place like Apollo Creed.
Can you take me higher? To a place like Rocky III.
by Thom Yee
The Rocky movies are beloved by many, many people, across a wide variety of generations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Speaking to an essential part of our shared human experience of fear, self-doubt, and our hope to one day just have a chance at success, they’re also one of the few series of movies that manage to transcend film itself with two statues erected in the character’s honour that can be visited in real life in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps the character runs up during his early training also acting as an important tourist destination for the city. But, as with a lot of movie series, the first was the best and it told a strong enough and self-contained enough story that not only can you easily argue against the first Rocky needing a sequel, it’s pretty easy to argue that every one after the first takes place in an entirely different universe.
The first Rocky movie I ever saw was Rocky IV. For a less-than-ten-year-old boy, it was arguably the perfect introduction to the franchise, with a fabled hero, the death of a mentor, an invincible superman of a villain, and an over-the-top setting that truly convinced me that people could change — if you punched them hard enough. Early in the movie there’s a montage of greatest hits moments from all three of the preceding Rocky movies (with a moody atmosphere that’s surprisingly effective), and later seeing those scenes synch up with their proper settings and contexts when I finally got around to watching the other Rocky movies made the whole experience that much more satisfying, something that would only be possible if I had watched Rocky IV first. But Rocky IV is also a mutant, music video abomination of a movie that even I’ll admit almost entirely doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme of the franchise, and as a film it represents the excesses of ‘80s culture at their most naïve and least thoughtful. And it will always have my unconditional love.
The Rocky movies are really very important to me for reasons even I don’t fully understand, so it was with great trepidation but an open mind that I went into Creed. I was cool with the idea of a movie about Apollo Creed’s son, and I was encouraged by the casting of Michael B. Jordan as that son and the presence of Ryan Coogler as the movie’s director, but when we first found out for sure that this would be a movie that also had Rocky himself in a significant role, that’s when Creed became a movie to both really look forward to and worry a lot about, especially with how well Rocky Balboa tied a bow on the character.
What’s it about?
Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is an aggressive young man seeking to make his way in the boxing world but unable to step out from under the long shadow cast by his late father, Apollo Creed, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Born after Apollo’s death but still very much affected by the legacy of his father, Donnie moves to Philadelphia to seek the training and guidance of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), onetime rival, friend, and heavyweight champion successor of his father, but Rocky has long since moved on from the boxing world and has his own challenges as he faces the last phase of his life.
As with its namesake character’s journey, Creed both benefits and suffers from its heritage as a movie that is essentially the latest in a long line of movies that have been coming out since the ‘70s. Unlike Donnie and his father Apollo, however, there are almost no crowds likely to hold the Rocky legacy against Creed, and for the most part it’s a movie that stands on its own two feet as Creed I rather than Rocky VII (Adrian’s Revenge?) even though, like Donnie, it winds up relying on Rocky a lot in order to find its own way.
One thing that is a bit tough to swallow about the Adonis Johnson story, and this might only be something that will bother long-time fans, is that the timeline doesn’t quite line up. The Rocky movies have always been moving along a questionable timeline anyway, where each installment seemed to be set in its year of theatrical release —1976, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1990, and 2006 — despite most of them clearly taking place less than three years after the last (and some of them happening directly after), and where some characters, like Rocky’s son, instantaneously aged up or down depending on the needs of the plot. From the beginning of Creed, we know that he was in juvenile detention in 1998, and we know from Rocky IV that Apollo Creed died in 1985, all of which would suggest that Donnie is at least 30 years old. That’s not too old, but it’s a little far from the young man we see on screen who seems to be closer to the dawn of his career rather than the dusk, and it seems like something would’ve come up in the industry punditry that follows Donnie soon after his first major win. If he is meant to be 30, his age does mirror Rocky’s age during the first Rocky, but the Rocky story was about a fighter almost past his prime, whereas Creed is more of a new beginning. And besides that, we all know how unacceptable it is for someone to have not found themselves before reaching the age of 30 unless that story is explicitly about a loser.
Is it any good?
Creed is a really good movie in all of the ways that really count, but I don’t know if it lives up to the hype that many critics have labeled it with. I’ve never been an advocate of shutting your brain off during a movie, but if you do during Creed, I can’t imagine not liking it. It tells the triumphant story of a young man who nobody believes in overcoming the odds and becoming the person he’s struggled his entire life to become, and it tells that story well, and if you leave it at that it’s also a movie that finds enough heart in its central characters and sincerity in its storytelling that it stands up as one of the better sports movies, and a worthy Rocky successor.
In the lead role, Michael B. Jordan gives a star performance as Donnie Johnson and later Adonis “Hollywood Donnie” Creed when he finally accepts his role as the son of Apollo Creed, and this is the kind of performance that will open up all sorts of opportunities for the actor (unlike his time in the latest Fantastic Four and the effect that movie has had on its stars). Donnie may not necessarily have grown up under tough conditions, but he’s definitely suffered under the label of Creed’s son. There’s a bitterness inside him that obviously makes sense given his legacy and the treatment he receives from the local boxing community because of that legacy, but there’s more to it than just that. Having never met Apollo, he harbours a resentment towards his father, whose presence has only ever brought him suffering, and it’s a resentment he suffers with that only somebody who’s experience something similar could understand. At the same time, Donnie’s not a stupid person or a person whose only option is to fight, and though he understands that the feelings of abandonment he has with his father are irrational, they’re still feelings he grapples with every day of his life. There’s a very singular point in the middle of the final fight of the movie where he admits something to Rocky that carries more emotionality than maybe any other scene in the movie, and its delivered with just the right intensity to bring the whole weight of the movie suddenly come crashing down and you suddenly realize why this story was worth telling.
Of course, this isn’t just the story of Adonis Creed, and the time we spend with Rocky, his initially reluctant trainer, is like returning to an old childhood friend that we never knew we needed to see again so badly. The last time we did see Rocky was in 2006 as he made his improbable final return to the ring, and if that movie was about Rocky barely being able to box, Creed is about Rocky barely being able to stand at all. Realistically, despite the bigger-than-life profile he developed in the ‘80s, he’s an old man, almost 70 years old. To put that into perspective, he was born in a time when the average life expectancy for men like him was 65. At this point, Rocky has lost almost everyone important in his life, and though he’s not really bitter, he’s a man who knows his time is past. His mentorship and friendship with Donnie helps to form the backbone of the Creed story, and when he eventually gets sick, he actually looks sick in a way that we’ve never seen Sylvester Stallone look in a movie before.
At its heart and as with the Rocky movies, Creed is a movie where the hero’s toughest opponent is himself, and that’s a universal theme that most of us can understand as many of us have a seemingly endless ability to put ourselves down and not forgive our own mistakes, and that’s where movies like this find their greatest meaning. That it’s a movie about overcoming great external obstacles, that it’s a movie about family, that it’s a movie about boxing is in many ways beside the point, and ultimately the journey toward success, or success as we can all hope to individually experience it, is a deeply personal one. It’s also a movie that benefits significantly from its setting in Philadelphia, with a score that helps to elevate it from obviously good to unreasonably great. With a movie like Creed, it’s important to get the feel right, and all of these elements come together to tell a story that just feels right on the inside.
At some point, though, you might turn your brain back on, and you might realize that some things just don’t sit right. At several points, Creed is almost an exact mirror of the original Rocky movie, especially the million-to-one shot he receives to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, but Donnie’s story is absent many of the greater moments of heartache that defined Rocky himself. He didn’t come from a bad neighbourhood, he wasn’t down on his luck, he’s a rich kid who has the luxury of quitting his job to pursue his dream, and that’s a hugely enviable luxury in this economy, and even though his dream might take a lot of work, he’s also blessed with the genetic capacity of his father to help him get there, a capacity that Rocky himself never had. Donnie’s just never really an underdog. Furthermore, many of the individual points he reaches along his journey can feel too much like a story rather than a series of plausible events, including finding a girlfriend in the apartment building he moves into when he starts training, finding a long-lost mentor who may be close to his own end, and facing potential failure born of his own inadequacies just before reaching his goal. It can get to be a little too explicitly hero’s journey at times and if you think about it too much the movie doesn’t stand on its own the way its message so desperately wants it to.
So should I see it?
Creed isn’t a movie that’s perfect, and I’m not saying that I know for sure that you’ll like it, but it’s at least good enough for most people to enjoy watching and it’s a strong enough movie that a lot of you might love it. Done well, it’s an all-win situation of a movie premise, and Creed is certainly done well enough that I’d recommend it strongly, but I can also certainly understand why somebody might respond “meh.” If you’re not a fan of the Rocky movies, you might not even be that moved by it as it attempts to tug at heartstrings that won’t exist for many of you. It’s a movie that exists mostly in a perpetual state of spiritual uplift, one that has a surprising amount of insight, but one that never really presents its heroes with the uphill battles that would make the story hit as hard as it wants to. Still, it’s a movie that’s almost impossible not to like, and it’s a movie that fits in well with the Rocky legacy, and that’s more than enough for me to recommend it.
Just promise me you’ll make time for Rocky IV too.
Thom’s Creed final score
On the Edge
- Once again, form over function, interior design over practicality, and everyone mounts their TVs above the fireplace. That’s the worst place!
- Mary Anne really must have taken good care of Apollo’s fortune.
- I always did wondered why she didn’t help Rocky out when he lost his fortune and had to move back to Philly. I guess now we know they just weren’t that close since he never called her back after Apollo’s funeral.
- It’s funny how real-life boxers almost never look as cut as their movie counterparts.