The Philadelphia of director Ryan Coogler’s Creed looks considerably different than the one depicted in Rocky. Though post-industrial malaise hung around the edges of the latter, the seventh film in Sylvester Stallone’s apparently immortal franchise shows a city well past its glory days, a city of chipped façades and worn colors, of faded glory brightened only by the gaudy flash of corporate logos that adorn storefronts that are even more of an eyesore than the long-closed mom-and-pop shops they displaced.
The racial demographics have also shifted. Gone are the white Italian Americans, replaced by a predominantly African-American community. So radical is the shift that when Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is introduced humbly tending to his restaurant after hours, his quaint bistro looks completely divorced from time. It’s a kitschy museum erected to enshrine the faded Italian legacy of the working-class neighborhood, a recreation of a previous civilization and its innocent ways. You get the sense that if the camera panned four feet to the right it would uncover some kind of novelty Frank Sinatra contraption that you could make sing for a dime. Not even a quarter, an honest-to-God dime, like your parents used to spend.
Yet it isn’t Rocky, the hometown hero with a lifetime’s supply of street cred, who looks out of place in this new Philly. That would be Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the bastard son of Rocky’s greatest rival, Apollo Creed, who leaves Los Angeles for the Italian Stallion’s town to receive training and answers about his father. Established as a scrappy, ruthless brawler from pre-pubescence, Donnie looks tough laying out cholos in underground Tijuana matches, but quickly stands out as pampered and untested when put in one of Philly’s storied gyms and forced to show some fundamentals. Rocky’s montages focused on using the street to the hero’s advantage, with odd drills conducted all around town to beef up his boxing know-how with practical, unorthodox application. Creed flips that script and focuses on Donnie being taught the basics, and how he can’t break the rules until he knows them.
It’s a narrative strategy that risks boredom, and it’s surprising how often Creed critiques the very idea of boxing. Whenever Donnie encounters a prizefighter, the frame freezes and the boxer’s stats—nicknames, records, and international rankings—pop up on the screen. But Creed tends to meet these guys first in the same ratty gyms where he works out, dispelling any hopes for future glory by reminding him that even if he made it to the top, he’d still have to come work out with the old-timers. Muhammad Ali told himself to suffer through miserable and rote training in the moment in order to be a champ later, but what this film points out, without sentimentality, is that the training never stops. No one in this film who’s been surrounded by boxing all their life bothers to hide their cynicism, if not outright disgust, for the sport.
That’s not to say that Coogler dismisses boxing. From an aesthetic standpoint, the film’s matches may be the most fluidly shot in the series, favoring long takes that pull focus on the demonstration of learned, honed skills over the cut-up impressionism of barbaric fighting. An early backroom bout is shot from the edge of the ring, suggesting a fan taking advantage of the amateur status of this circuit to get as close as possible to the action. Later, Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti film an entire match in a single take; it can’t help but call attention to itself, but the scene also flows with the motion of the boxers, curving with their dodges and rushing forward with their sudden onslaughts. The sequence solves the problem of using close-ups and frantic editing to capture the feel of a fight by adopting a style that preserves visual continuity and spatial coherence while also literally rolling with the punches to give the viewer the sense of moving with the action.
By contending with the unglamorous nature of professionally beating other people into unconsciousness, however, the film makes more time for its characters’ inner lives, and more so than any other Rocky movie, this feels like an actor’s showcase. Front and center, of course, is Jordan, who gets to play the kind of character so rarely afforded to black men in Hollywood. Donnie is a hard, mean, self-isolating man, but he’s also vulnerable, sometimes shockingly so, as when Rocky confronts him about his belligerent anger toward his father and prompts tears so suddenly that Donnie is too taken aback by them to even let himself feel sad.
But Jordan is also capable of great tenderness, especially when Donnie is around his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). The actor adapts Donnie’s brashness around her, keeping his confidence, but flecking it with enough bashfulness to lend it a benign, generous quality. In an industry that too often pigeonholes actors of color into roles as either hard-headed brutes or beatified PC totems, Jordan gets to enjoy the multivalence typically afforded only to white stars, and he handles the tumultuous emotions of his recognizably human character with star-making ease.
Not to be outdone is Stallone, who has always found his most fertile soil in Rocky and the inherent tragedy that nags at this symbol of perseverance. At least before the champ could still get in the ring when needed. Here, he can at best watch from the sidelines, offering advice and putting the next generation through its paces. But the role of powerless observer suits the actor well, as it removes from Stallone the burden of having to put on a show of his strength and toughness. Instead, he lets himself be weakened, to be slow, to be a cantankerous putterer instead of a champion, and in his terse coaching of Donnie lies unmistakable affection for the person who roused him from misery and torpor.
Sometimes Stallone just can’t help himself with stale humor, as in a bit where he’s so mystified by talk of “the cloud” on Donnie’s phone that he looks up at the sky, but for the most part he focuses on the drive of an old man just tough enough to refuse to admit how frail he feels. Ironically, it’s as a worn-down side player in his own career-making saga that Stallone feels more like a star than he has in years. Even Thompson, the odd woman out in this tale of surrogate father-son relations, shines, enjoying a natural chemistry with Jordan and building out Bianca’s own maudlin hope as a musician slowly going deaf, making art at a desperate pace while she still can.
The leads’ impressive interplay is aided by a script that consistently trusts them to communicate without belabored speech. Screenplays these days have become too much like dictionaries: arranged in functional order and given to exacting descriptions of basic terms. But one of Creed’s greatest traits is its reticence, its refusal to say 10 words when two will do, or to say one word when silence says it all. This has the effect of lending something evocative and abstract even when something is spelled out directly, so that the drama related to a health scare is suddenly, thrillingly resolved with the line “If I fight, you fight,” or Donnie’s entire attitude of rage and resentment is self-diagnosed in a single moment of clarity near the end of the film.
It’s easy to say that this film merely recycles the same beats as Rocky, but the fact that this iteration of the protagonist is black isn’t simply a matter of rearranging elements, but a massive alteration of context. Stories proliferated over the summer of Magic Mike XXL showings filled with women losing their mind, tossing singles at the screen and screaming in rapture at finally getting entertainment made for them and not in spite of them. Creed feels the same way: In a screening filled mostly with black women, Jordan elicited a reaction in nearly every shot, and a scene in which Donnie casually fixes Bianca’s long braids sent a moan of collective ecstasy rippling from the first row up to the top of the theater. When Donnie took a punch, the room gasped, and when he cried, dozens of people started sobbing.
This isn’t just a testament to Jordan’s star presence. It’s what happens when subjects and actors traditionally omitted from cinema are placed into shamelessly populist spectacle and legitimized as things and people with mass appeal. Rocky suggested that hard work and dedication could overcome personal and social ills. Creed suggests that Hollywood is one of those problems that can finally be rectified.