Cue the trumpet fanfare; it’s a Rocky movie. No, wait, hold those trumpets, at least for now. Creed is not that kind of Rocky movie. It’s not quite Rocky VII, and not just because Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa is old and on the sidelines, ceding the spotlight to a young African-American boxer played by Michael B. Jordan. Two years ago, its director, Ryan Coogler, collaborated with Jordan on Fruitvale Station, which depicted the senseless death of a 22-year-old black man named Oscar Grant at the hands of a Bay Area policeman. That’s one kind of story, one vital way of framing the world through African-American male eyes alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Black Lives Matter. Creed is another. It’s a Hollywood story, which Coogler gets: He even gives his protagonist — the illegitimate son of ex-heavyweight champion Apollo Creed — the initially derisive nickname “Hollywood.” But Creed represents a kind of Hollywood fantasy that doesn’t have to be specious, focusing on pride, determination, self-control, hard work, and forging one’s own identity. Movies don’t always have to be “how things are.” When they’re as warm and rousing as Creed, they can be “how we want to make things.”
It’s a hell of a movie, a funny mix of corn and street: street corn. Jordan’s character, Adonis Johnson, is a mixture of elements, too. He never knew his father, who was killed in the ring in the absurd Rocky IV — a film that’s in a different sphere than this one. His mother died; he grew up in foster homes and juvy halls. Then Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), adopted him, so he lives in a Los Angeles mansion and is fast-tracked for success in a brokerage firm. Mary Anne doesn’t want him to box. She says, “You are your father’s son and you’re part of him, but it doesn’t mean you have to be him.” No one in his father’s old orbit will train Adonis, so he trains himself. Perhaps the movie’s strangest, most indelible image is Adonis standing before a big-ass state-of-the-art video screen mirroring punches thrown by his dad against Rocky Balboa. So to whom else should he go to be trained?
I know, shameless. And so good! The setting: Philadelphia. The place: the restaurant named for Rocky’s dead wife, Adrian. Here comes Stallone’s Balboa — thickened, his nose squashed, shuffling out of the basement: “How’s it goin’?” He doesn’t know who Adonis is, but when he does he says, re: training boxers, “I don't do that stuff no more.” We have to accept that dramatic beat, even though we know what’s coming, and the next beat, too, in which Adonis heads to the late Mickey’s old gym and is met with indifference. He doesn’t tell anyone he’s Apollo’s son, you see. He wants to make it on his own — even though the entire plot turns on his celebrity bloodline. The movie has it both ways and pulls it off. Like I said: street corn.
Note the camera placement. Rocky visits his wife and brother-in-law Pauley at the cemetery, pulling up a chair, filling them in on his life, reading the paper, with Stallone nestled in the landscape, the city behind him. When you go back and watch the original Rocky, what might hit you is how the director, John G. Avildsen, kept Rocky a Capra-esque Everyman (or Everypalooka) in an indifferent universe. But Stallone wasn’t happy with that — or, at least, his dad wasn’t, telling his son (according to interviews) that Sly’s physique looked a bit puny. For the sequels, Stallone built himself up and took control of the camera, bringing it close, making himself loom large in the frame — and turning himself into a joke. Maybe he made a fortune, but he killed what made many of us like him. (Look at First Blood for the same trajectory. A good, moving thriller with Stallone fighting against an indifferent universe, compared to Rambo, which showed a cartoon muscleman shot from way down low: “What you call hell, he calls home.”)
In Creed, Stallone is as gosh-darn lovable as he was in Rocky. He dons his specs and reads while young Adonis jumps rope to the point of near-collapse. This time, the requisite training montage isn’t Rocky building himself up but Rocky acting as a tough dad (actually, Adonis calls him “Unc,” when not calling him "O," as in "O.G.") who’s amused by his own mock-sadistic tactics. “One step at a time, one punch at a time, one round at a time,” he tells his pupil. It’s not the big picture but the small one. Get yourself right. Coogler (who wrote the script with Aaron Covington) doesn’t underline the “racial harmony” aspect of the narrative, but it’s in every shot. Apollo’s and Rocky’s worlds intersect: There’s Meek Mill rap and Bill Conti’s Rocky theme side-by-side on the soundtrack. Rocky is “old-school” and so, now, is Adonis Johnson-Creed. And so is Michael B. Jordan, who makes Adonis’s cockiness a product of will and not entitlement.
The story is outlandish, of course, but Coogler has a savvy boxer’s way of hitting you from directions you can’t predict. The movie stalls on the brink of the first big fight when Adonis tells Rocky to unlace his gloves quickly because he suddenly has the shits. We haven’t stopped giggling over that sly bit of myth-busting when Maryse Alberti’s camera starts following Rocky and Adonis and their entourage into the ring — and the shot is held and held and held, a bravura piece of cinematography and fight choreography in which the camera moves in and out, in and out, dancing and swerving along with the boxers.
Tessa Thompson — who showed she had the makings of a star as the plucky heroine of Dear White People — plays the impossibly adorable singer-songwriter who lives downstairs from Adonis and becomes the movie’s designated female cringer, watching her man’s blood spatter over the canvas. In addition to singing and cringing, though, her character has a hook: She has progressive hearing loss — she’s going deaf. But still she makes music, one note at a time, one song at a time ... The secret of Creed — of so many of the best go-for-it movies — is that it’s grounded in loss: death, mortal illness, disability. The setting for the finale — the light-heavyweight world championship — is so preposterous that even the characters express skepticism over why they’re there. But Coogler doesn’t let himself get meta. He might not believe in the reality of Creed, but he puts every bit of faith and skill he has in the reality of the dream.