“The way I imagine it, after the fight, he’s riding home in a cab, with the roar of the people chanting ‘Rocky!’ still in his ears. And he just drops over dead ... I don’t think people want to see Rocky when he’s 80.”

That was Sylvester Stallone, speaking to film critic Roger Ebert in 1980, about how he originally wanted to end Rocky III. Stallone later toyed with Rocky dying at the end of Rocky V, but reversed himself on that decision as well. Now Stallone is 69 years old, and the question of whether people still want to see a geriatric Rocky will be settled by the box office for the seventh Rocky movie, Creed. From a creative standpoint, though, Stallone’s decision to keep Rocky alive already looks like a smart decision, because he’s still around to co-star in this moving film about another aspiring boxer looking to prove himself.

This time, the man at the center of the drama is Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, (Michael B. Jordan) the illegitimate son of Rocky’s former opponent, trainer, and friend Apollo Creed. Creed died in the ring before Donnie was born and his mother died soon after that. He bounced between foster care and juvenile detention centers until Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), adopted him and gave him a home. Years later, despite Mary Anne’s objections, Donnie quits his job in the finance world to pursue his love of fighting. He heads to Philadelphia and coaxes Rocky Balboa — who he lovingly refers as his uncle — to come out of retirement and train him to become a professional boxer. That training becomes even more important after Donnie’s lineage makes him next in line for a shot at the light heavyweight title, which is held by a desperate champion (Tony Bellew) who’s about to go to jail on a gun charge.

The setup — written by director Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington — cannily bridges the old and the new, reworking the classic Rocky formula without trotting out all of its clichés. There’s very little of the pandering fan service one might expect from a movie about Apollo Creed’s son. The classic Bill Conti Rocky theme is used sparingly, as are the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There isn’t a single scene in a pet store, or a mousy young woman who doesn’t realize she’s beautiful, though Donnie does have a love interest; a talented undiscovered musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson). In its own way, Donnie and Bianca’s unconventional relationship quietly echoes the sweet and supportive one between Rocky and Adrian.

Donnie, like the old Rocky, is the unproven underdog who falls into a match with a world champion he’s hopelessly unqualified to fight, while Rocky settles into the role of Mickey, the unorthodox old trainer whose life is revitalized through his relationship with his new pupil. Johnson and Stallone are just as good together as Stallone was with Burgess Meredith in the first three Rocky films, and there is a beautiful sort of symmetry in seeing the former champ now passing on the knowledge that was imparted to him; not just about boxing but about life as well.

In one of Creed’s best scenes, he places Donnie in front of a mirror and counsels him about the greatest opponent he’ll ever fight in or out of the ring; the man whose image he sees reflected back at him. It’s a classic Rocky moment that speaks to the themes of the overall franchise — in which the climactic fights were visually dynamic but narrative formalities because the real struggle was always between Rocky and his own sense of self-worth — as well as the ones important to this specific installment. There are two Donnies onscreen in that mirror scene, and throughout Creed the character wrestles with two very different identities, Donnie Johnson and Adonis Creed, and weighs how exactly to live up to his father’s legacy and step out of his shadow. Without straining credulity in the slightest, Coogler also finds one more opponent for the Italian Stallion to fight, and the sequences where Stallone battles his new adversary, and makes one more trek up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, are as poignant as Rocky screaming for Adrian at the end of the first Rocky. 

Creed is plenty exciting too, with dynamic fight scenes photographed by Maryse Alberti (who also shot The Wrestler), one of which transpires over the course of a single long take. But at their core, the best Rockys aren’t boxing movies; they’re movies about a boxer, a small but important distinction. The outcomes of the fights, thrilling though they are, matter less than the reason why the hero is fighting. At 133 minutes, Creed is the longest movie in the franchise, but all of that time is spent exploring the lives of Donnie, Bianca, and Rocky, so that when the big fight comes, and Donnie slips on a familiar pair of star-spangled trunks, it really means something.

In graciously ceding the floor to a new generation, Stallone’s proven that there’s still life in his old punch-drunk palooka’s legs. Rocky’s not 80 yet. But after the inspiring and electrifying Creed, everyone’s going to want to see what the Italian Stallion is up to at that age.


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