Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in Creed (Warner Bros.)
Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in Creed (Warner Bros.)

What it's about:

Adonis Johnson never knew his famous father, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. But there’s no denying that boxing is in his blood, so Adonis heads to Philadelphia, the site of Apollo Creed’s legendary match with a tough upstart named Rocky Balboa. Once in the City of Brotherly Love, Adonis tracks Rocky down and asks him to be his trainer. Despite Rocky’s insistence that he is out of the fight game for good, he sees in Adonis the strength and determination he had known in Apollo—the fierce rival who became his closest friend. Agreeing to take him on, Rocky trains the young fighter, even as the former champ is battling an opponent more deadly than any he faced in the ring. With Rocky in his corner, it isn’t long before Adonis gets his own shot at the title… but can he develop not only the drive but also the heart of a true fighter, in time to get into the ring?

What we thought:

It was already pretty amazing that 2006's Rocky Balboa (has it really been that long?) resurrected the long-dead franchise with a genuinely very good swan song for the iconic character but there's something miraculous about the fact that we're back again, nine years later, with another very fine Rocky movie that manages to take the very redundancy of Rocky and use it to create something surprisingly vital and fresh.

For all that the film focuses on Adonis Johnson (brilliantly portrayed by Michael B Jordan, redeeming himself nicely after the trainwreck that was Fantastic Four), the film is as much about Rocky Balboa as any of the six previous films. He may not throw a single punch in the film and he may have considerably less screen time than Adonis but the main thrust of the story is all about the contrast between Adnonis' hunger, anger and youthful arrogance and Rocky's almost zen-like acceptance of life's fleetingness and his perhaps depressive feelings of obsolescence. It's a startling contrast that gives plenty of space for both characters to learn from one another and grow in ways that they would never have imagined but also single-handedly justifies the film's very existence.

Yet another straight Rocky movie would probably have been pushing it after Rocky Balboa proved to be such a perfect capstone for the character and a total reboot – which they so could easily have done – would probably have felt even more worthless with its presumed repetition of such a well-known story. Instead, though the film draws very heavily from all six past installments (we even find out who won the match at the end of Rocky III) and revels in its own formula more completely than any boxing film since Rocky IV, it never feels like just a nostalgia trip (though nostalgic it certainly is, beautifully so) or, worse, a crass cash grab. Director, Ryan Coogler belays his newbie status (his only other feature film is the really rather good Fruitvale Station) with a sure hand that keeps the film from ever losing this precarious balance.  

Creed is that rarest of things: a standalone film with real emotional punch and thematic complexity that also continues and expands upon a very well-established, now almost cliché franchise. It may even open the way for a whole new series of films but so perfectly handled is it that it can't help but feel like tempting the fates to try and continue the series, especially if they do so without Stallone.

And that, of course, is one of the film's greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. Stallone has often been criticized for his acting abilities but his sterling work here reminds us once again just how great, how iconic a character Rocky so obviously is, but also how astonishingly good he is in the role. It may even be his best work in the franchise to date. The problem then, is that no matter how good the rest of the cast is – and with Michael B Jordan knocking it out of the park and Tessa Thompson channeling her inner Lisa Bonet, it's very, very good indeed – Rocky and Stallone can't help but utterly overshadow them. It also probably doesn't help that the film's “villain”, a dickish Liverpudlian boxing champ, is easily the least memorable baddie in the series.

Finally, mention must be made of the music. Creed features a whole new score and replaces the feel-good pop songs of past films with an edgier hip hop beat but it's actually just another case of the film so brilliantly balancing the old and the new. Along with its presumably unintentional riff on Burt Bacharach's famous theme song from Alfie (“What's it all about... Aaaaalfie”), it constantly references the classic Rocky score without actually replicating it. When the classic Rocky theme, Gonna Fly Now, does finally come in, therefore, it's a fist-pumping, heart-leaping, smile-forming moment that proves once and for all just how bloody well everything else around it is working.

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