Most directors, coming off an indie hit like Fruitvale Station, can move on to just about any high-profile project they choose. Want to make a Marvel movie? You got it. Adapt a long-running book series into a mega franchise? Done. For Ryan Coogler, his dream project was … a Rocky film.
Huh? What? The franchise that essentially ran its course after Rocky III, yet continued on for another three movies?
Yep. That Rocky.
And Coogler wants to do some sort of spin-off/reboot focusing on Apollo Creed’s son?
You’ve got it.
Well. That’s a head-scratcher.
When Creed was first announced, it almost sounded like a bad joke. Coogler, of all the projects to choose from, decided on a seventh Rocky film. If it missed, whatever goodwill built up from Coogler’s Fruitvale Station would probably go down the drain. Good thing for Coogler that Creed is fantastic. It’s easily the best in the series since the original.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring by Ivan Drago way back in Rocky IV. Raised in the lap of luxury by Apollo’s widow, Adonis wants more than anything to be a fighter. With nobody willing to train him in California, he packs up his belongings and heads for Philadelphia, seeking the tutelage of Rocky. After some hesitation, the former champ agrees to train the young Adonis.
Writer-director Coogler breathes new life not only into the series, but the boxing genre in general (check out Southpaw for evidence of how the genre’s constraints can bring down an otherwise solid film). Creed wisely – and finally – takes Rocky out of the ring, giving him a new role and a new fight to take on.
Creed can’t fully escape the shadow of six Rocky films. The underdog, the training montage, the fights … all hearken back to the franchise’s glory days, but that’s part of the point. Creed is Coogler’s dream project, and in his hands, these bits don’t come across as retreads. They’re more re-energized. Coogler knows what makes for a classic Rocky and embraces them like an excited kid who can’t believe they’re making a Rocky movie.
Stallone, playing Rocky for the seventh time in nearly 40 years, slips into the skin of his most famous character like a glove. Building off of the previous six films, Stallone builds upon that wealth of experience to take Balboa into uncharted territory. It’s a heartbreaking performance that ranks among the iconic actor’s best, and should earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, his first Oscar nod since the original Rocky in 1976.
Of all the franchises this year getting rebooted, namely Mad Max and Star Wars, Rocky may be the strangest choice of them all. Thanks to Coogler’s passion and Stallone’s performance, Creed isn’t just one of the better reboots to come along, it’s one of the better films of 2015.