The best punches are the ones you don’t see coming. Following the failure of the underrated Rocky Balboa, the Rocky series was on the canvas, the count nearing ten. Creed not only gets it — and Sly Stallone — back on its feet, but completely reinvigorates it.
The smelling salts have been delivered by Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, the directing/acting duo who made their mark with the excellent Fruitvale Station. That their second act should be to revamp a franchise that started before they were even born is surprising, but welcome. And if, at times, Creed follows the tracks of the first Rocky a little too reverently, it’s no mere retread. There’s a different energy at play here.
A career of action dreck has often obscured the fact that Stallone can act, and here he gives perhaps his best performance.
Much of that stems from Coogler’s direction, flashy when it needs to be (along with cinematographer Maryse Alberti, he shoots one fight sequence in a single unbroken take), and impressively controlled, conjuring up a sense of time and place that feels as authentic and informed by Coogler’s experiences as Rocky was by Stallone’s. Race is addressed, of course, but it’s never the film’s overriding preoccupation: instead, the focus is on the problems that come living with a legacy, and trying to escape from a shadow that seems endless.
As the son of Apollo Creed, the effortlessly charismatic Jordan nails his father’s flamboyance, but also gives Donny a brittleness beneath the braggadocio. He’s a young man caught between the desire to turn away from that surname, and the need to know a father who died before he was born. That’s why he reaches out to Apollo’s old friend, Rocky Balboa, for guidance. There’s a reason why this film isn’t called Rocky VII, but fans of the Italian Stallion won’t feel shortchanged by Balboa’s second-banana role. From the moment Stallone shuffles on screen, weighed down by the baggage of six movies past including the loss of everyone he ever loved, he discovers notes he has never played as an actor.
It’s a generous turn as both actor and character, a literally supporting role. Rocky gathers a team to surround his new fighter and takes more delight in Donny’s achievements than he ever did in his own. As he’s slowly revitalised by Donny’s presence, Stallone recaptures Rocky’s nobility and sense of decency, allied to a raw pain that will prick tears from your eyes. A career of action dreck has often obscured the fact that Stallone can act, and here he gives perhaps his best performance. And that’s a punch nobody could have seen coming.