Creed doesn't propel the Rocky franchise into a rebirth—the boxing-film genre reached its narrative limits long ago. But by using conjoined character arcs that double as Jungian archetypes, the series' seventh film ably honors, updates and even deconstructs its legacy.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of late champ Apollo Creed—Sylvester Stallone's respected nemesis in the first two Rocky films—is rescued from a delinquent childhood spent bouncing between foster homes and detention centers by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo's widow.
Although Adonis is reared in wealth, his father's fighting blood runs through his veins. Still haunted by her husband's death in the ring, Mary Anne discourages Adonis' impulses. But after the son of Apollo's late trainer refuses to train him, Adonis quits his job in California and moves to Philadelphia to coax an aging Rocky Balboa (Stallone) to take him under his tutelage.
With his beloved Adrian 14 years dead (as was covered in 2006's Rocky Balboa), Rocky now also visits the grave of his brother-in-law and best friend, Paulie. He hasn't seen his estranged son, Robert, for years, which might be a sad allusion to the death of Stallone's son, Sage, in 2012. Rocky runs an Italian restaurant, Adrian's, and doesn't visit Mickey's gym anymore. But he reluctantly agrees to train Adonis, though Rocky's lingering guilt over failing to prevent Apollo's death is a motivation the film doesn't sufficiently explicate.
Adonis fights under the surname Johnson, preferring to earn his fame rather than riding the coattails of his absentee father. Adonis' rapid ascension up the ranks makes little sense—this is a Rocky movie, after all. But once his lineage becomes public knowledge, it catapults him into an unlikely title fight against the undefeated British world champion (real-life boxer Tony Bellew). It also means that Rashad, who once played Bill Cosby's TV wife, is portraying a woman forced to suffer the public revelation of her famous spouse's philandering.
Under the auspices of writer-director Ryan Coogler, Jordan's director in Fruitvale Station, Creed reclaims the blackness of a franchise originally framed through the prism of The Great White Hope, with genuine depictions of inner-city Philly and a central romance between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson, terrific until relegated to being a spectator). It's not only the first Rocky film in which Rocky doesn't fight in some fashion, but also the first that doesn't spotlight a white boxer. Adonis' two main bouts are against fighters of color—the first, played by real-life boxer Gabriel Rosado, is edited as an extended take with exhilarating camerawork that sails around and between the pugilists.
Jordan is utterly at ease as an actor; Stallone is utterly at ease in his role. Together, they conjure an alchemy of wit and poignancy. Creed doesn't conclude with a celebration in the ring. Instead, a movie icon haltingly climbs the same steps he galloped up to glory almost four decades ago. The image isn't just a portrait of Rocky Balboa's mortality. It projects the mortality of us all, conveyed as an elegy for a cultural phenomenon.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Three American dreams"