My uncle was a boxer. In an old photo, there’s fire in his eyes as he faces his opponent. His fists are up, ready to knock him out. I don’t know if he won the fight after taking that photo, but the momentary feeling of victory- of living his destiny- might’ve been enough.
In director Ryan Coogler’s sophomore effort, “Creed,” (and the seventh Rocky film in the franchise), emerging boxer Adonis Johnson Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, seeks out the famed Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him, despite his adoptive mother’s (Phylicia Rashad) warnings. Adonis wants to prove himself as a fighter without evoking his father’s name, but it’s his father’s legacy and loss that both inspires and overwhelms him.
This is not your father’s Rocky film, or your usual franchise spin-off. Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington manage to resist some of the genre’s most well-known cliches with instinctive, fresh storytelling that privileges character growth and relationships over plot.
There’s something personal about this film. It comes through in the details- in the look of bruised innocence in the eyes of black boys in a detention center where young Adonis is placed after his mother’s death, in the way Adonis plays with love interest Bianca’s extension twists after making love, and the very real ways it handles the idea of death for Rocky, and for Adonis, who both seem to be fighting against that reality.
“Creed” is as much about the glory and the pride of boxing as it is about the pain and destruction of it, and how fighters keep going with this dismal possibility facing them. Blood is shed, eyes are swollen shut, and bodies are broken down in the pursuit of a moment’s victory and what seems a lifetime of glory.
But glory comes at a cost. As Rocky trains Adonis, they become somewhat of an odd family, filling in the vacancies left by their own- Adrian, who died of cancer, and Adonis’ father and biological mother. In Adonis, Rocky sees promise but also sees his deceased friend Apollo Creed, who haunts him. In Rocky, Adonis sees and feels a connection to the father and legacy that he hopes to reclaim.
And while I was weary of seeing Sylvester Stallone in another movie, he does well here because he’s allowed to be the aging, 69-year-old man that he is. Coogler doesn’t attempt to repackage the old Rocky or give us the elderly white savior that usually tends to resurface in movies like this. Adonis is always the focus of this film. Jordan steals scenes with a mixture of inner torment, charm, and intensity. As in “Fruitvale Station,” he’s able to tap into a spectrum of emotions during performances- a storm of tears, anger, and disappointment make one scene in a jail cell particularly moving, and reminded me of Jordan’s final scene in “The Wire” as young Wallace. The vulnerability is palpable.
In one of the most stirring scenes, Adonis runs down a Philly street, surrounded by dirt bike riders, as they perform 12 o’clock stunts, tipping their bikes vertical and hailing his greatness. The fierceness and adrenaline in Jordan’s face jumps off the screen and gives you a similar feeling as that iconic scene where Rocky Balboa runs up those stairs with what seems all of Philadelphia behind him. Remember?
Also similar to “Fruitvale Station,” where the Bay Area became a character, Coogler and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti capture Philadelphia in striking visual details and characters- greasy Philly cheesesteaks, sunlight seeping through boxing gym windows, steamy sidewalks, and the unlikely love interest, singer Bianca who is also fighting for her life and passion, but in a different way. Tessa Thompson brings a distinct energy to this role, making us root for her as well. Using music by The Roots and a pulsing score by Ludwig Göransson, Coogler, who played football in high school and college prior to becoming a filmmaker, delivers a truly exhilarating sports experience.
I left the theater feeling like a fighter, feeling like my uncle after a victory. The film reminds us that winning is the easy part. It’s the battle for one’s mind and body that can be the most challenging feat.
“Creed” opens nationwide on November 25.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She’s written for VICE, Gawker, and The Los Angeles Times. She is currently developing her first feature film.