"Creed" Is "Rocky" Without The Racial Insecurity

    Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler electrify Sylvester Stallone's boxing franchise while gently examining its legacy in terms of race and class.

    With Creed, Sylvester Stallone passes the torch of his iconic boxing series to a young black man.

    Actually, a trio of them: There's Michael B. Jordan, of course, baby-faced and hard-bodied and movie-star bright as Adonis "Donny" Johnson, the son of Rocky Balboa's rival and friend Apollo Creed (embodied in the first four Rocky movies by Carl Weathers), who died in the ring before the child he fathered was born. Then there's director Ryan Coogler, who at age 29, was years from being born when Rocky won best picture in 1977, and who made the leap to a studio film from Sundance Film Festival breakout Fruitvale Station, in which Jordan also starred. And lastly, there's Aaron Covington, with whom Coogler wrote the screenplay for the terrifically entertaining Creed, the first film in the franchise to not be scripted by its creator.

    It's a tectonic shift handled matter-of-factly. Creed isn't a film that deals explicitly with race, but Adonis's blackness is as much a part of his identity and his experiences as Rocky's working-class Italian-Americanness was. Philadelphia, the city to which Adonis moves and in which Rocky grew up, is now majority black, a reality the movie reflects easily in its background players, from Adonis's cutman to the guys behind the counter at Max's Steaks to the bike life kids on the corner, as well as Bianca (a winning Tessa Thompson, who more than holds her own against Jordan), the singer-songwriter, downstairs neighbor, and self-possessed beauty for whom Adonis falls.

    The Rocky movies follow an established formula as persistent and catchy as a pop chorus, and Creed doesn't try to rewrite a melody that's worked, to varying degrees, for four decades. It revisits so many of the beats ingrained in American pop cultural memory — the underdog arc, the training montages, the unlikely fight against the big champ, the steps — but it does so with what's primarily a cast of color, presented without comment.

    The original Rocky movie had a current of racial unease, its story tinged with an underlying fear of being edged out and replaced. It was set in a Philly that was experiencing serious white flight and racial turmoil, and it depicts a world of boxing in which the dominant fighters don't look like Rocky Balboa (Stallone) or his hero Rocky Marciano. Balboa is this sweet palooka who wants to prove that he isn't actually a bum, that he can go the distance, that his time isn't already past. Eventually he has to win, and then he had to win over his old nemesis, and then he had to fight the Soviet Union on behalf of America, in increasingly silly but satisfying sequels.

    But when Rocky arrives at the gym early in the first film, he finds his locker's been cleared out and given to a younger, more promising black boxer who taunts Rocky on his way out. "Where are the real fighters gonna come from, the pros? All we got today are jig clowns," the local bartender sneers as he and Rocky watch Apollo Creed on television, the slur making it clear what a "real fighter" means to him even as Rocky comes to his future opponent's defense.

    Rocky is a fable about the American dream, the potential for a guy who comes from nothing to get a shot at being the champion. But it's Apollo Creed who wears the stars and bars in the big fight, who touts the Bicentennial theme, and who reappropriates the images of first George Washington and then Uncle Sam for his dramatic entrance. It's Apollo who searches for "a snow-white underdog" to put on a poster and to fight, a marketing decision he attributes to his own sentimentality as well as the country's, because it's not a fight he expects that challenger could ever win. It's Apollo Creed who dares lay claim to the identity of the all-American hero, and who gets schooled for his assurance that the world belongs to him.

    Rocky engineers a scenario in which its white protagonist is the underrepresented underdog, the one going up against an arrogant, privileged black establishment, the one getting mocked for his ethnicity ("If he can't fight, I bet he can cook," Apollo says of Rocky's Italian background). It gets away with the fundamental bad faith of this arrangement only because Rocky himself is so lovably guileless and sincere, humbly defending and deferring to the reigning champ, fighting only to prove himself, not prove that he's better than someone else.

    There's no resisting Rocky, and Creed is as fond of him as anyone else, even as in its makeup it rebuffs the first film's assumptions about who the audience would see itself in. Coogler coaxes the finest performance in years out of Stallone in his supporting part — he's funny and fumbling and vulnerable, the mountainous physique betraying signs of age. Rocky may be a legend, but he's still a neighborhood guy, long retired from the sport, running his restaurant, and living alone since Adrian died between Rocky V and Rocky Balboa. The movie represents Stallone's third and maybe not even his last attempt to say goodbye to the character, and it's easily the best, because it's not intent on serving as another elegy. Rocky has committed to a lonely widower's life before Adonis turns up on his doorstep, asking to be trained, and it takes a while for him to spark to life again, to reluctantly be pulled back into boxing, but also into engaging with people beyond those he lost.

    He's always been a little ridiculous, Rocky, a guy whose quiet nobility comes from the fact that his life didn't guarantee him dignity, and his relationship with Adonis grows in a way that's joyously unforced — not quite paternal, and not entirely a mentorship. Adonis calls him "Unc." Their ups and downs culminate in a reworking of one of the training montages that are a standard for the franchise — one that's gutsy and touching for the way it mixes the sports in with the personal.

    Creed reckons with Rocky without railing against it, most interestingly by figuring out a way for Adonis to be an outsider that doesn't involve him establishing his bona fides by stepping on another group. Adonis isn't just Rocky, rebooted and revamped. He's something different — not the least because he's well off. He begins the movie as an orphaned baby scrapper growing up in group homes and juvie, but then, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad, who like Thompson, refuses to simply be turned into a plot accessory), the widow of his famous father, tracks him down and takes him in despite the fact that he's the product of her husband's infidelity. As a twentysomething, he lives with his loving adoptive mother in Los Angeles, spending his days in a cubicle at a finance company and his weekends winning rinky-dink pro matches in Tijuana.

    Adonis has an education, and options, and no one wants him to fight. No one understands why he would, when for other boxers, fighting for a living is a means of survival and a way out of poverty, and when Adonis's father was killed by the sport. In Rocky, Apollo urges his fans, "Stay in school and use your brain — be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget sports as a profession." Creed is a movie about boxing, but it's also one that tips its hat to Apollo's message. Its hero moves to Philadelphia because everyone in L.A. refuses to train him or enable him in any way to devote his life to boxing when he doesn't have to.

    It's practically a twist, the moment in which Adonis pulls up to the gated McMansion in which he did most of his growing up, because it's such a reversal of Rocky's blue-collar origins. But it also requires a rethinking of what, in this world, counts as authenticity.

    Adonis has to battle his way past accusations of growing up with a silver spoon in his mouth and of being a legacy kid, despite his complicated relationship with the father he never knew. People ask him where he's from when he talks. When he meets Bianca while asking her to turn down her music, she sniffs at his story about needing to get up early to train, figuring him for a gym rat rather than a pro. Later, she confesses she wouldn't have guessed he was a boxer, because, as she puts it, "Aren't most boxers street?"

    Boxing is tied into the mythos of bootstrapping and rough beginnings, something from which Creed isn't totally immune, with its opening scene in juvenile detention. But in making Adonis an upper-middle-class kid who has to choose a life of fighting rather than grasp onto it as a way out of poverty and anonymity, Creed gently positions Rocky's outsider origin story as one that's actually standard to a tough sport built on the idea of hard men who came from nothing. It doesn't undo its impact, but it suggests there are plenty of ways to feel like an outsider and to be the underdog.

    Adonis, with the famous last name he hates to use and his self-taught seriousness, is certainly his own sort, shrugging off other types of expectations of being soft and of coasting on his father's career. He's no bum, but he's maybe a prince, or at least, that's the way others would like to dismiss or market him. And (after a first match dazzlingly shot in one long take) he ends up being matched against "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (played by real boxer Tony Bellew), a top-ranked British boxer who's an inspirational local hero from a working-class city with some criminal ties — more of an alterna-Rocky than Adonis is.

    But Creed deftly resists any easy summarizing of its characters, even as it ramps up to its brutal, riveting final match: Adonis is nice California kid who immediately gets labeled "Hollywood," but one who comes packing a rage and determination that both get him in trouble and power him through; Ricky's the antagonist, but he's not a villain, despite his taunting — he's trying to earn one last payday for his family before he has to go to prison; Bianca's a musician dealing with progressive hearing loss, legitimately more focused in taking advantage of her career while she can than having a relationship; and Rocky maybe relates more to the dead than the living. Creed understands the value of formulas and of archetypes, but more importantly, it knows how to push off them to find the unexpected. It feels familiar, as it should, but it is also, in its own right, electrifying.