Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler, is the 7th film in the Rocky saga, which over nearly four decades has chronicled the arduous journey of Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion. This saga traverses through the mean streets of Philadelphia, extends to the hard hitting gyms of Los Angeles, across time and the ocean to what was once known as the Soviet Union and back again. For those of you who have never seen a Rocky film, you may be asking yourself if it is a prerequisite. The answer is no. Well, not necessarily. You can walk into a theater today, buy a ticket for Creed, a box of popcorn or a pack of Twizzlers, and enjoy all 133 minutes of the movie without knowing who Apollo Creed AKA the Master of Disaster, AKA the King of Sting, AKA the Count of Monte Fisto ever was. But it would help if you did your homework.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the son of Apollo Creed, who was once the most popular heavy weight boxing champion of the world. We first meet Adonis, or Donnie as he prefers to be called, in a juvenile detention center. Donnie has to be pulled off of another youth who insulted his deceased mother and invoked his wrath. He pummels this larger boy with all of the rage he has inside of him and right away we see, misdirected as it may be, that Donnie has the spirit and heart of a fighter within him. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) pays a visit to Donnie in his cell and befriends him. She tells Donnie that she was the wife of Apollo Creed and offers to let him live with her.
Over the next twenty years, Donnie lives with Mary Anne and eventually immerses himself into the underground boxing world of Tijuana, Mexico. He fights 15 times and has an undefeated record. But fighting is his night job. During the day he works at a financial institution where he is newly promoted. He promptly resigns and informs Mary Anne that he plans to pursue boxing fulltime. She is horrified at the thought of him following in his father’s footsteps. Despite her objections which include a torrent of bad memories she recalls of Apollo being nursed back to health fight after fight, and ultimately dying in the ring, Donnie leaves the Creed compound in search of realizing his destiny as a prizefighter.
Donnie’s first stop is Delphi Boxing Academy in Los Angeles. We see his father’s portrait venerably on display. This is hallowed ground, perhaps not far from where Apollo trained at Tough Gym to become one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. Tough Gym is where he led Rocky to redemption after having lost the championship belt to Clubber Lang when Mickey died. It’s where a fighter goes to get what Apollo famously dubbed the “Eye of the Tiger.” Delphi Boxing Academy is being managed by Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris). Tony is unwilling to train Donnie, writing him off as an amateur in a world where real boxers have to fight in order to survive. Undaunted, Donnie climbs into the ring and challenges any fighter to spar with him. He puts the keys to his new Mustang up as collateral wagering it for a chance to be trained at Delphi. If any fighter can land a glove on him he’ll surrender the keys. Tony watches on. Donnie ducks the first few punches of a game challenger and knocks him out with a wicked counter punch. He roars in defiance of Tony’s refusal to take him seriously as a fighter. But Donnie’s bravado is ultimately silenced by Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward), Delphi’s best boxer and heavy weight contender, moments after Donnie’s short lived victory. Next stop: Philadelphia, PA.
Donnie tracks down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at his restaurant Adrian’s. Donnie asks Rocky to train him. “I don’t do that stuff anymore,” Rocky says. Donnie starts to recant stories of Apollo, details only Rocky would know. Donnie tells Rocky he knows about the secret third fight they had after Apollo successfully trained Rocky to regain his championship belt. He asks Rocky who won that third fight. “It’s sort of a secret” Rocky says, impressed that Donnie knows these things but not yet sure of how. Then it dawns on Rocky, as he studies the young man in front of him that only someone in Apollo’s inner circle could know such things. “What are you like a cousin or something?” he asks. Donnie then tells Rocky that he is the son of Apollo Creed.
If Creed is to stand on its own, it must get out of the dual shadow of both the legend of Apollo Creed (as the progeny of any sports legend must ultimately do) and the legacy of Rocky. This shadow includes 6 previous films, an academy award (Rocky was nominated for 10 Oscars and won for Best Picture in 1976), a score by Bill Conti which is synonymous with victory and routinely played in professional sports stadiums, and an enduring folklore which continues to champion the underdog in society. Can Creed do this? Well, it would be unrealistic to expect this from a 7th installment of a saga. Yet Creed has what it takes to merit its own successive sequels.
Where Creed may be lacking is in the antagonist department. Rocky tells Donnie that his biggest opponent and challenge he’ll ever face in the ring is the one he sees in the mirror. While Donnie’s repressed emotion at the loss of his parents certainly presents a formidable obstacle in his rise to become a champion in this movie, will that be enough of a rival to keep us interested? After all, Rocky had Apollo to contend with and partner with for 4 movies. I, nor any other paying moviegoer I would venture, am interested in seeing Adonis Creed fight himself in and out of the ring for 3 more movies. Adonis will need a larger than life opponent to push him to excel to greatness, just as Apollo pushed Rocky to the limit, to the boundaries of that place that all would-be champions must go to prove to themselves that they are worthy of that pinnacle.
That being said, Creed certainly is a juicy, mouthwatering, appetizer and what I hope turns out to be the first of several more Creed plots. And oh yeah, maybe it’s time we retire, as great as it is, Rocky’s theme music. Adonis will need his own anthem if he is to become the cultural hero that Rocky has become. Questlove, got anything?