Creed begins where studio pictures never take us, a juvenile detention center where young black boys – children, barely topping four feet – are led down a hallway single file by guards demonstrating a caution more befitting a column of armed adult felons. These boys shuffle along, heads bowed, and you can imagine this picture’s negative, the single file lines that children of opportunity form in schoolyards, where under the natural sun they can laugh and tease their classmates and are allowed their childhood. Centers like these are the solution to troubled children, or maybe just children whose normal childhood behavior is viewed through a warped lens. Instead of optimism, instead of nurturing their minds and showing them that the world can be beautiful and that they belong in it, they are treated with pessimism, they are suppressed and scared and convinced that their lives will be narrow and fluorescent. You very quickly get a sense of how we can fuck people up for the rest of their lives because we’re afraid of what we don’t understand. And that’s all in the first shot.
This is from the eye of Ryan Coogler, the director of Creed, and from this first scene, which introduces us to Adonis Johnson (played in youth by Alex Henderson) and the wanderlust in his fists, you can tell you’re about to watch the boxing movie you expected but with an undercurrent of something you didn’t expect and can’t define. Is it just that it’s a true black boxing movie, with a black director and a black star, a marrying of perspective and subject we’ve never seen before? Is it that thought went into the composition of these shots and the weight of this world, and that what’s usually elided over in studio films isn’t elided over here? Whatever it is, you know you’re a witness to smart and courageous filmmaking that takes a well-worn format and finds another story in it, a story you want to say is new but you know has been there forever and just hasn’t been allowed to be told until now.
That this butterfly of a story emerged from the formulaic cocoon of a franchise now seven movies old makes it all the more impressive. This is a Rocky movie through and through, steeped in the lore of its heroes and the tragedy of their falls, but the standalone story being told is self-sufficient enough to exist independently. The previous movies are to Creed like extra toppings on a pepperoni pizza or, maybe more fittingly, like bell peppers on a cheesesteak; they add a savory touch to what tastes great on its own. Adonis is revealed to be the lovechild of Apollo Creed and is lifted out of – saved from – the center by Creed’s widow Mary Anne (the eternal Phylicia Rashad). She gives him a life of luxury in Los Angeles that, once he grows into a man played by Michael B. Jordan, begins to restrict him like a bedsheet on a warm night. Boxing is his life’s calling but the memory of the late Creed prevents L.A. trainers from letting him into the ring, and devoid of options he heads for Philadelphia to seek out the tutelage of Rocky Balboa. Reluctant minds need to be swayed, an iconic fight aspired to, and the self conquered on the road to glory.
Both Adonis and Rocky have demons to vanquish but in Coogler and Aaron Covington’s script their quests are inextricably intertwined. Done trying to defy age and pretend he is a younger, more capable man, Sylvester Stallone finally, nobly, lets the years catch up to him. The Rocky in Creed is done fighting, inside the ring and out, even when looming mortality knocks. Stallone wears his history in his entire personage, he is a scarred and beaten canvas of the past, and he brings a wonderfully kind energy as the facilitator of another man’s dreams and ambitions. It’s Stallone’s King Lear, the moment in every great English actor’s life when they have to forgo vanity to admit they’re on the back nine, and Stallone shines for his bravery.
But this is Adonis’ story, and this is Michael B. Jordan’s movie. Everyone is aware of what goes into playing a boxer, the physical transformation that has become a young male actor’s salvo at immortality, and one look at Jordan’s frame is enough to know he has put in the time and the reps. But it’s the work Jordan has done to tone his mind, to struggle with the legacy of his father and all that brings with it, combined with his ocean of raw charisma that makes him transcendent. Jordan’s physical prowess allows Coogler to shoot something as ambitious as a single-take two-round boxing match and have it work beautifully; it’s everything between the lines that lets Coogler, when Adonis at one point lies semi-conscious on the mat, to cut to flashes of his relationships sans music and have you know exactly what they all mean to him and why they stir him to get back in the fight.
His relationship with Rocky dominates the text of the movie, as well as one with a singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson going pound for pound with Jordan) who lives downstairs of his Philly apartment. They both have aspirations of greatness and, though her story eventually takes a backseat to Adonis’s, she’s blessedly allowed to force him to treat her as an equal. When the chips are down though the relationship that matters most to Adonis is with someone who’s never there: Apollo, forever the absent father due to the machinations of fate, leading Adonis to question the purpose of his own existence and his own self-worth.
All this personal struggle is framed against a wonderfully depicted Philadelphia, captured in all its dirty and decayed grandeur. There is beauty in every composition, from the murky purples and blues of the lounge where Adonis first watches Bianca sing, to the boxing gyms plastered floor to ceiling and wall to wall with fight posters that each contain a myriad of untold stories, to the kinetic and balletic bouts that bring the most personality and verve to cinematic boxing since Raging Bull. The characters on the fringes are so well-realized it feels like the camera found them hanging out in a corner and just started rolling, like a grizzled trainer just out for a buck played flawlessly by Ritchie Coster, or a grizzled trainer out for a million bucks played just as wonderfully by Graham McTavish. Creed effortlessly establishes a world that you wouldn’t mind spending a lifetime in from the comfort of your own home.
Except for that detention center. Forged in its fires, Adonis is always seeking to prove, in his own words, “that I’m not a mistake.” There’s a moment late in the film when he sprints down the streets of Philly with Meek Mill pounding on the soundtrack and motorcyclists doing wheelies around him like an urban Mad Max. It’s a transcendent scene, the triumphant training moment you’ve come to expect from the Rocky films but as you’ve never seen it told before. Watching Adonis in that moment, as he roars like a lion and writes himself a new chapter in the lore of Philadelphia, it is clear he is anything but a mistake. Everyone has their worth, they just need the freedom to find it.