The heads of the City Dionysia, the Grecian playwriting competition that pitted Aeschylus against Sophocles and can be considered the original Oscars, had a rule: no original characters. Instead, the best creative minds of a generation — or really, a millennium — exhausted themselves finding new spins on, say, Medea. When Euripides rebooted the child-murderess as an empathetic immigrant, audiences were so scandalized that they voted him last place. Formula trumped freshness. Sitting in a movie theater 2,500 years later watching men named Apollo and Adonis pummel opponents like the first Olympic boxers, the past has never felt more present.
Ryan Coogler's Creed is set in Philadelphia, the Mount Olympus of movie boxing, where Adonis "Hollywood" Johnson, illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, pilgrimages to learn footwork from that legendary oracle, Rocky Balboa, played as ever by Sylvester Stallone, who launched the series in 1976 as an underdog actor/writer. Back then, Stallone was obsessed with creating his own mythology: He was the stubborn visionary who had only $106 in the bank when he turned down a six-figure deal to give the lead in Rocky to Burt Reynolds. Now, supposedly, he's here to pass the gloves to rising talent Michael B. Jordan and become his Burgess Meredith–like
Rocky also clearly doesn't have Facebook, because he's astonished to learn that Apollo Creed had a child, even though Creed's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), adopted Adonis, his secret son, out of foster care in 1998 and raised him in his dad's mansion. Adonis goes by his estranged birth mother's name, Johnson, but he's hungry for a new family. The kid calls Rocky "uncle," and though they're near-strangers, the term fits. Even to us, Rocky is just a vague figure who shows up every decade or so around the holidays.
The movie around him is just as vague. After his 15th win at a slum club in Tijuana, where his opponents are so rinky-dink that he unties his gloves before the referee counts to siete, Adonis quits a vague white-collar job (insurance? banking? law?) to go pro. Why? prods Mary Anne. He's rich, not desperate or dumb. Adonis can't answer, and neither can the film, which vacillates between believing he needs to prove himself as an individual and framing boxing as an inheritable disease.
Creed exists in a shadow world of déjà vu. Adonis visits the Rocky statue, wears familiar gray sweats, and prods Uncle Balboa about the fight from Rocky III almost as if he's a fan of the films. He sleeps next to Paulie's old porn magazines and, as in Rocky IV, preps to fight an international bad boy on foreign soil. With the script's emphasis on dynasty, it makes sense that the villain, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), is English. Yet, as the provenance of an evocative rival, Liverpool is no Cold War Moscow, though Coogler does his best to amplify stereotypes.
When Stallone wrote Rocky, he wasn't a boxing fan. Original director John G. Avildsen hated the sport. Accordingly, Rocky was a boxing movie that was about everything but: opportunity, loserdom, loneliness. Creed is just a boxing movie. Adonis gets the same character beats — a romance with a Medusa-haired siren (Tessa Thompson), a too-soon big fight, his own fading mentor, three workout montages — but the film itself is just a drumroll for a young warrior who only wants to win. The interesting wrinkles in the Adonis character go mostly unexplored, like his abusive early childhood and torn feelings about his cheating father.
Even the boxing matches are easily distracted. Coogler likes to use swirling single takes, which feel visceral and frightening — Creed's battle against Leo "The Lion" Sporino (Gabe Rosado) is a literal knockout — but missteps by keeping the camera so close that we often can't even see the fighters' fists. He'd rather pan over to look at blood-spatters, ice buckets, bikini girls, anywhere but the ring.
Meanwhile, 69-year-old Stallone pulls focus in the background, coughing dramatically like a Victorian heroine. If Rocky's own mentor Mickey was sick, the old salt would crawl off like a sick cat. But Stallone has always and will always loom over his franchise. When Adonis seizes a moment to seduce Thompson's Bianca on Rocky's couch, the camera pans over to end the scene on Balboa's disapproving turtle. It's the kind of goofy, personal choice the film could use more of, but it also made me shiver. Even Rocky's pets will outlive us all.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, and Anthony Bellew. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington. 132 minutes. Rated PG-13. Opens Wednesday, November 25.