Let’s put it on the record that I am not a fan of sequels, especially those in which previously nuanced lead characters transform into comic-book heroes paired up against comic-book villains. The sequels to Rocky did exactly that, especially in the third and fourth films, and turned what had been an underdog to which everyone could relate into some sort of superhuman machine, able to singlehandedly defeat the Soviet Union and avenge the death of friends in the ring. Despite the original film and the first sequel being excellent character studies, first of the despair of poverty and oblivion and then of the fright of losing it all, the franchise became a joke (note: I did not see the last film in the series, Rocky Balboa).

Sylvester Stallone has not given up on it, though, and this time the effort pays off in Creed by returning to what made the original Rocky a superior film. Creed gives us a character study, one that the ring sequences inform rather than having the ring sequences become the point. We first see Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan as an adult), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, rescued from juvenile hall by Creed’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Living on the residual wealth of Apollo’s estate, Adonis gets a good education and has a career in investment banking, but the chip on his shoulder pushes him to walk away from it and pursue a boxing career. He drifts out of Los Angeles and Tijuana to Philadelphia, and looks up an old friend of the father he never knew — Rocky Balboa, who is now all alone and running his own restaurant.

Rocky makes it clear that his fighting days are done, both inside and outside the ring. All he wants now is to live out his string and join his beloved Adrian in the cemetery. Adonis convinces Rocky to give him a chance, but Rocky knows that Adonis is fighting something other than a boxing opponent. When Adonis gets the chance Rocky got decades ago, the question will be whether Adonis can find himself, and whether Rocky has any fighting spirit and heart left for a new life.

The film centers on performances by Jordan, Stallone, and Tessa Thompson as Bianca, the woman who gets Adonis centered. All three give impressive performances, perhaps Jordan most of all, whose spare readings of anger, despair, and battered self-worth give the film its heart. Stallone gives his most natural performance of Rocky Balboa since the original film, and wisely stays a supporting character to Adonis. Phylicia Rashad is curiously wasted; it would have been interesting to see her do more with the role of Mary Anne, perhaps as a foil to Rocky. Tony Bellew makes for a good ring opponent as the Liverpool world champion who has his own problems, and against whom Adonis must eventually measure himself.

Even if the ring sequences aren’t the central point of the film, they are worth mentioning for their compelling nature. The film eschews the typical Rockyesque filming of these sequences, which tended to rely on sports coverage motifs. In Creed, the filmmaker puts us in the ring with the fighters in a more visceral sense. Other flourishes, such as overlays that give ring stats whenever Adonis crosses the path of more established fighters, are a little too stylish for a film looking for grit, but viewers will happily overlook those when the action gets rolling.

While it’s not a perfect film — a subplot involving Rocky is a little too maudlin and Hollywood-contrived — it is nevertheless an excellent film, perhaps the most worthy sequel to a most worthy film. Who wins in the end? Viewers do. (Other than that … I’m not telling.) Also, C. T. Rex may have a review of his own this weekend, so stay tuned.

On the Hot Air scale, Creed gets a five:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Creed is rated PG-13 for “violence, language, and some sensuality,” but the latter is pretty mild, and mostly contained to one scene that suggests a lot more than it shows. There is blood, lots of it at points, but in the context of boxing. I’d probably balk at taking my 13-year-old granddaughter to this film, mainly because I don’t think it would interest her. However, that does remind me that I saw the original Rocky in its theatrical release in 1976, when I was … thirteen years old. In terms of potentially objectionable content, Creed and Rocky are probably on equal terms, if that helps.