Considering that Creed is essentially Rocky VII — the latest attempt, after 2006’s Rocky Balboa, at rebooting the Rocky series — it works surprisingly well. That’s a shock, because Creed does exactly what you expect it to, almost to an embarrassing degree. Like a snake eating its tail, the series has come all the way back around to the original Rocky (1976), telling the story of an up-and-coming fighter with an unbeatable will, yet continuing along with the same story line and characters established 40 years ago. Because of this, Creed is predictable and cliched — yet, somehow, still engaging. For whatever reason — and this probably goes back to Rocky in some way — this film has tapped into some kind of fail-proof archetype, one that involves all the overcoming of odds that one expects from sports movies these days — except stripped of the preachiness and gooey emotions that often taint these types of movies.
Creed is simply concerned with telling a story (yes, one that’s not original) in the most entertaining way possible. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) rarely does anything flashy (his style, unfortunately, veers towards “gritty,” meaning all the visuals are awash in gray), but he knows how lay out a plot and what emotional buttons to hit. Yes, it can be manipulative, but it needs to be. Otherwise, why care? It helps that the cast is likable (yes, even Stallone, revisiting his role as boxing’s noble savage Rocky Balboa,) and that means — even superficially — that there’s someone to root for.
In this case, it’s Michael B. Jordan as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate son of famous boxer (and one of the greatest ever, we’re told) Apollo Creed (originally played by Carl Weathers and showing up here via stock footage). Donnie is placed inside the Rocky film universe as the product of an affair between Creed and his mother, whose death sends him into a series of foster programs until he’s tracked down and adopted by Creed’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Now in adulthood, Donnie finds his office job boring and decides to follow the same path as his father, quitting everything and heading to Philadelphia to track down Creed’s old rival and friend, Rocky Balboa, in a desperate plan to have him train him.
Yes, the film is heavy on the idea of will and heart — coupled with grown men punching each other in the head — as a path to redemption, but Jordan manages to make it palatable. While I wouldn’t consider him a great actor, he does have a likable screen persona. This occasionally hurts the film, since he can’t quite pull off the macho fighter thing, but it does, thankfully, keep the movie from getting bogged down in masculinity. It helps that he and his romantic interest (Tessa Thompson, Selma) are legitimately charming and occasionally lift the film beyond just a boxing movie. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Stallone’s found the one role he can play, that of the aging, punch-drunk fighter. Even the film’s inherent daddy issues — something that destroys most movies — are handled here with a certain amount of astute observation. No, Creed is no great film, but it does know how to keep one’s attention and never forgets to just be entertaining. Sometimes that’s enough. Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality.