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Creed was always going up against some tough odds. It had the difficult task of acting as a Rocky sequel as well as carving out its own identity and reason for existing. As big of a fan I am of the Rocky series, I have to admit to some trepidation when it came to believing in Creed. I’m pleased to report that any such hesitance was ill-founded. Not only does Creed succeed as part of the ongoing saga of Rocky Balboa, but it excels at making its new leading character just as endearing as the Italian Stallion.

What I really love about the story of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is that his drive is something we haven’t seen before in the Rocky films; he’s full of anger at the absence of his father from his life (Adonis was born out of wedlock) and feels no other desire than to fight. But, unlike most of the characters in the Rocky films, Adonis doesn’t have to choose the life of a fighter, and plenty of people keep telling him that. His adoptive mother, Apollo’s wife Mary Anne, has given him a life of comfort and at the start of the film Adonis is working as some sort of cubicle drone. But this isn’t the person he is. He goes down to Mexico to fight in seedy little boxing matches and he wins them all.  There’s nothing else Adonis knows or wants other than being a fighter.

Michael B. Jordan is doing wonders with Adonis, and this is the film that has solidified him as one of our most valuable young actors. He’s down-to-earth, intense, sweet, funny, and ultimately inspiring. A lot of those adjectives would apply to the original Rocky‘s protagonist and that’s no mistake. Creed, even more than the previous film Rocky Balboa, is tapping into that original film’s spirit and struggle, but it’s not replicating that story verbatim. It’s telling the story of a man who can’t escape the shadow of his mythical father, but learns over the course of the film that he can make his own legacy while also embracing the one that was left for him. It’s a great arc that feels both familiar and fresh, and Jordan sells it all perfectly.

He’s aided by fabulous direction from Ryan Coogler who also co-wrote the screenplay. Coogler brings a visual intimacy that we haven’t really seen before in the Rocky series, utilizing a lot of close-ups and long takes that make Creed feel apart from the series in the best of ways. It doesn’t hurt that the fight scenes are phenomenally choreographed and feel all too real, so much so that I may have gotten sucked into one of the fights to the point where I had an audible and physical reaction when a character was knocked down.

Of course, we have to talk about Rocky. Sylvester Stallone has always felt incredibly close to the character, and this film is no exception. There are scenes in this film that will continue to remind you that Stallone is a real actor, not the lunkhead movie star most of his career tried to make him out to be. What’s fantastic to rediscover in Creed is how funny Stallone is. Transitioning him into the Mickey role offers plenty of laughs but never at the expense of good character work, with the exception of one forgivable groaner about cloud computing. And if you cry easy, dear reader, Creed will certainly get the waterworks going. Besides the inescapable troubles of Rocky getting older, there are small sweet moments that will tug at any Rocky fan’s heartstrings. Just the fact that Rocky has a chair stashed in a tree next to Adrian’s grave made me get a little choked up.

The film isn’t perfect. Adonis’ love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) feels far too inconsequential by the time the film gets to the final fight. Their romance isn’t bad, but her purpose in the story feels so peripheral that it’s very easy to see a version of the film where she has been excised. Thompson is really good in the role, so it’s not her fault that the character never comes off as interesting or important to the overall narrative. She’s just there for some additional conflict and an outlet for the movie to share information with the audience about Adonis’ past. I’m certainly not saying that a romantic character couldn’t have worked in the movie, but the one we’ve got is just flat.

Other than that, I really don’t have much to criticize about Creed. We can get into comparing it to other films in the series in the comments, but as a film standing on its own, Creed is an absolute triumph. I was unable to fight back the tears during a few moments at the end, and that’s what a good Rocky movie should be doing. What’s doubly impressive is that those tears had to do with the conclusion of Adonis’ arc, not Rocky’s. That shows you how well this movie achieved its goal of creating a new character that we care about. Goddamn it, I’m tearing up just writing this.

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