2015 has already seen one decades-old franchise revival become a major success, and asking for more than that almost seems greedy. But this year's cinematic cup runneth over, and so yet another 1970's film series is finding new life and (potentially) new audiences. However, where Mad Max: Fury Road was another installment with a new actor but the same director telling the next disconnected mythic story of the Road Warrior, Creed comes from journeyman director Ryan Coogler but still follows Sylvester Stallone as the Italian Stallion as he trains a firey new fighter.
For the first time in franchise history, Stallone didn't write the screenplay (he also directed every other film after the original), but the infusion of both Coogler's passionate cinematic storytelling and the talents of Michael B. Jordan as the titular son of Apollo Creed infuse the nearly 40-year-old franchise with potent new life.
Creed opens with Adonis "Donnie" Johnson fighting in juvenile hall, unaware that he's the illegitimate child of Rocky Balboa's greatest rival and closest friend. Donnie is found by Apollo's widow Mary Anne and brought to live in the Champ's mansion in L.A. It's obviously a turning point in the young man's life, but he never feels comfortable there any more than bouncing around foster homes. When the film flashes forward to the present day, Donnie is going to Mexico to box in semi-legal bouts, sore over the fact that no one at his father's old gym will train him. Frustrated, he quits his finance job to move to Philadelphia.
Why Philly? Three guesses.
As a man who never knew his father and apparently coming up short on male role models, it seems natural that Donnie would seek out his father's best friend. He is obviously fascinated by Rocky but also warms quickly to the lovable and lonely older man. Both are obviously adrift, one looking backwards and the other feeling unable to move forward, and wind up finding new family in each other. The third member of this tripod is Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician as unable to walk away from a career that she cannot continue indefinitely as Donnie is unable to stay away from the boxing ring. The romance between Donnie and Bianca isn't a retread of the Adrian/Rocky romance from the first movie (the beats and characters are very different), but it feels familiar enough to feel right in the context of Creed's larger narrative.
Said narrative is, frankly, the same basic framework as pretty much every Rocky movie - in the broadest sense, there's a guy who finds he needs to get ready for a Big Fight, so he trains for the Big Fight, and then he has the Big Fight. What makes these films work (when they work) is that these structures are in service of a constantly continuing exploration of well-established characters and a recognizable world. By Creed, Rocky is carrying four decades of history where no amount of victories in the ring can make up for everything that he's lost, and the dramatic mileage that the film gets out of Donnie's conflict between honoring his father's sport while building a name of his own makes even the goofy, jingoistic 90-minute montage that is Rocky IV an integral part of the boxing saga.
But the real superstar of the production is Ryan Coogler, the man who fought for, wrote, and directed this exciting new chapter. Coogler finds a Philly that feels both familiar to Rocky fans but of the moment rather than stuck in the past, and an easy-going dramatic patter for the character scenes that is the right mixture of genuine and heightened so that the quiet moments around a dinner table or a hospital bed never feel awkward in the same film as the beautifully-directed boxing matches. Coogler crafts moments of wrenching pathos alongside soaring victory, and combined with Ludwig Goransson's thrilling score, creates some of the best cinematic beats of the year.
If you ever need proof that this cocktail of drama, action, and inspiration isn't a layup even with a familiar formula, just look at the low points of this very series. But this one isn't just a winner, it's pound for pound (sorry, had to) one of the best films of the year. If Hollywood is going to continue to dust off its old workhorses (rather than simply remake them), let Creed by the mold by which they're now cast; a film unafraid to pass the torch to new talent both in front and behind the camera, and skilled in the function - not just the form - of what made these movies connect with audiences in the first place.
Now if we can just get a good Star Wars movie to make for three in a row...