Film Review: ‘Creed’ concludes the ‘Rocky’ series well

Morgan Smith

My IMDb rating: 9/10

“Creed” is one of the only sequels I’ve seen that almost completely reuses the plot, themes, characters, locations, and even lines of its predecessor, but absolutely works. It makes “Jurassic World” look like even worse commercial trash than it already was. 

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I say ‘predecessor’ because although “Creed” uses backstory and information from the entire “Rocky” series, its form and nods in its screenplay (women weakening the legs, the eggs) are at all times paying tribute to the original 1976 “Rocky.” If you haven’t seen the original, it’s on Netflix, and even among the high standard of boxing movies, it remains the ultimate classic.

The original “Rocky” goes as follows. A self-taught fighter who is trying to make a name for himself, winning cheap fights in cheap clubs, starts a romance with a local girl, is hand-picked by the current heavyweight champion of the world because of his name, goes through a sweet training montage, and while he doesn’t win the final fight, he holds his own, and makes his own name, which was his goal all along. 

Creed Poster
Image courtesy of IMDb. “Creed” was released November 25.

“Creed” follows that word for word. Well, he’s picked by the current “pound for pound” champion of the world, but basically the same thing. There are two major differences. The first is that Adonis seeks out Rocky Balboa, the former heavyweight champion and friend of his father, to train him. The second is that Rocky had to start from the bottom up, but “Creed’s” main character, Adonis, subjects himself to go from the top to the bottom and back to the top again. Why?

The answer is the title, a name that hangs heavy over Adonis’ head for the entire film, Creed. That is the name of Adonis’ late father, Apollo Creed, who is considered the greatest boxer of all time in this fictional world. This comes as no surprise, as the character was modeled after Muhammad Ali.

Adonis is the illegitimate child of Apollo, and happens to also be a fighter. Apollo’s wife finds Adonis when he is in juvy, and he is raised in the luxury his father amassed before he died. At first, we don’t feel particularly bad for Adonis; by the time he’s an adult he so rich he can bet brand new Mustangs on a whim, and his only problem is trying to make it in the fighting world without the name Creed. Boo-hoo. When Sylvester Stallone was Rocky almost 40 years ago, he was living in near poverty and was reduced to threatening bums for gangsters just to pay the bills. 

In one of the most heartbreaking moments at the end of the film, we fully realize Adonis’ motivation. Rocky, who has been acting as his trainer, says he’s going to stop the fight. Apollo, who eventually became Rocky’s good friend, died in a match that should have been stopped. Adonis refuses to stop, and Rocky asks why. Adonis says, with tears in his eyes, “So I can prove I wasn’t a mistake.” Wow. With this one line, we can see the sum total of all the lonely pain of Adonis’ childhood, and when we see Rocky’s reaction, we see his pseudo-fatherly love towards Adonis come out all at once. And the fight goes on. 

I’ve rarely seen such a lock for an Oscar than in Stallone’s supporting role in this film. As an actor, one of the hardest things you can do is throw off the celebrity and stardom you’ve acquired and convince people that you’re still just a person. Stallone, who spent a good portion of his career being the biggest star in the world, and has one of the most recognizable names ever, does this with flying colors. The bravado of some of his ridiculous action characters (namely from the “Expendables”) is gone. Here is Stallone, fully humbled, in complete control of the nuances of his character. 

It is, after all, his character. He wrote the original “Rocky” screenplay when he was poor and reaching for his dreams in New York, and he wrote and directed the five sequels that followed. He returns to “Creed” only as an actor, but his presence in the film is monumental. No man in the world knows Rocky Balboa better than he does, and he exhibits it here. At times he lets Rocky have fun, and other times he conveys the painful histories of his character in single looks and in moments where he is clearly putting on a mask of smiles to hide the tortured life he has been living.

In “Creed,” Rocky is living alone, and his old friend Pauli, his wife Adrian, and his friend/rival Apollo have all passed on. In one scene that says ten thousand words, he visits Pauli and Adrian’s graves, and pulls out a newspaper to read to them “what’s new in the world.” Then he pauses, looks back at the graves and the film cuts away, before what we assume is Rocky talking about his new relationship with Adonis, and what it means to him.

The scene that will play before Stallone accepts his Oscar is when he hears that he has been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The doctor recommends chemotherapy, and, in a line that presumably made millions cry, Rocky somberly says, “No, my wife tried that.” So much history and pain and connection with the audience in one line, and in the way he says it, the honesty with which he said it.

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The scene directly afterwards is a long take of Rocky going back to the training ring with Adonis, acting completely normal. The camera stays on him the whole time because it knows he has just been given a death sentence. It sees what the other characters in the room don’t see, the repressed pain in his eyes, and the smile he puts on so that everyone can keep living their lives while he silently passes on. When Adonis confronts him, Rocky admits that he is ready to die, and has wanted to for a while. He would “put all the the good things in a bowl and trade it for one more day with his wife.” He just wants to see the people he loves again. 

The central theme of “Creed” is family. We see it in the title, the family name of Apollo and Adonis, and we see it at the end, when Adonis is interviewed and thanks his new family, his girlfriend and Rocky, who decided to go through chemotherapy so he could stay and help. 

The technical sides of “Creed” are equally impressive. The long take and montage are both used to full extent. Adonis’ second fight is one long shot, and in Adonis’ first and last fight, long steadicam shots follow him from his preparation in the locker rooms all the way into the ring. The shot at the end is a particular triumph, as it moves into a large stadium packed with actual extras, actually moves under the ropes and into the ring, moves 360 degrees to show that it’s all real, and all the while the footage is being shown on large monitors in the crowd. 

One sequence of editing near the end is particularly effective; several cuts showing how much blood has been spilt on the ring. The images we see in rapid succession are blood on the canvas, a wet and red towel someone is using to clean it, Adonis’ wounds, and the bucket all the fluids end up in. It is cut expertly, and sequences like these are so telling of the mastery of the craft honed by a film’s creators. 

Hopefully this is the last of the Rocky series. No franchise could have a better conclusion. The last scene is Adonis helping Rocky back up the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while a piano version of the Rocky theme in minor key plays in the background. When he gets to the top, Rocky looks down at the city one last time, and says to Adonis, “If you look hard enough, you can see your whole life from up here.” I like to think it was Stallone himself saying that, seeing the journey of his own life through the climbing of those steps.

Collegian Film Critic Morgan Smith can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter@MDSFilms.