Michael B. Jordan is form fitted for the role of Adonis. Power washing the stink of Fantastic 4 right off him, this is another sterling credential in his exciting young career. Never given over to breathy speeches or melodrama, Jordan comfortably occupies the identity of a man who communicates with his body. I know little about boxing, but the commitment Jordan pours out on screen feels authentic. And in a bit of the expected/unexpected, Creed’s finest performance comes from Sylvester Stallone, his best turn in a decade.
I didn’t have an expectation as to how much Rocky Balboa would be involved with this story, but his is the richest vein in the picture. He never overshadows Adonis, yet he serves as an essential backdrop. Occupying a space between cobwebbed relic and father surrogate, Stallone exercises a kind of simple dignity. Increasingly buried under years of abuse take in the ring, Rocky maintains certainty within his weathered frame. With components both bodily and character driven, Stallone adds unexpected dimensionality to our familiar Stallion.
There is an investment in these characters. It’s no sort of observation to note our leading men are intended to be a film’s bedrock, but Jordan and Stallone seemed consumed with one another. Not due to the drama massaged into their arc, but the mutual identity forged through shadowboxing and speedbag work. There are only so many ways you’ll play a boxing picture, but the relationship at the core of Creed breathes considerable warmth into paces you may know by heart.
Speaking of boxing, Creed looks great. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography moves freely between the sensitivities of young love and over the shoulder tension in the ring without compromising visual identity. Where the Rocky’s of past became increasingly glitzed up, this is a rougher, dimmer effort with just enough naturalistic touches.
For all its good, Creed leaves unrealized potential on the table. Adonis’s mother, arguably the most transformational figure in his life, spends the entire story a coast away watching events unfold on her television. Bianca—love interest and musician working on some tasty ass tracks—is given little more to work with than the demands of “good woman.” Tessa Thompson is talented enough to take these filaments of character and give Bianca a voice, but there is so much intrigue and excitement surrounding her that goes unfulfilled.
Creed is a story about boxing and identity. Boxing requires technique and repetition, identity is solidified incrementally, and our film is no different. Early on in the film, Adonis stands in a towering image of Rocky projected onto his wall, footage from an old fight, and he mimics a flurry of punches he’s learned after hundreds of viewings. Later in the film Rocky embraces another outsized persona familiar to the franchise, the same kind of knowing tribute fueling Adonis. And through this both men have to come to grips with the the lingering visage of Apollo Creed, an icon casting a long shadow over both lives so deeply affected by man and legend.
Where these things could stumble into tacky homage, they instead seem to be utilized for no reason more complicated than they work. But the fact that it works isn’t enough. Instead this a completely realized idea about transition. Rocky tells Adonis he can teach him everything he knows about boxing, and the methods remain unchanged, but he reminds Creed that beyond all the footwork and one-armed pushups and sparring there is an elusive something special that sets a great boxer apart.
The same could be said for any boxing picture, and it's certainly what makes Creed worthy of the name.