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. As I sat in a movie theater 2,500 years later watching men named Apollo and Adonis pummel opponents like the first Olympic boxers, the past had never felt more present.
Ryan Coogler’s Creed is set in Philadelphia, the Mount Olympus of movie boxing, to which 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. Now, he’s here to pass the gloves to rising talent Michael B. Jordan and become his Burgess Meredith-like mentor. But after seven rounds as the Italian Stallion, Stallone can’t let go of the spotlight, even though he barely has a handle on his own character. His Balboa has been Xeroxed too many times; he’s all blurry around the edges. The once hyper-specific lug who doted on turtles still has the fedora and clear plastic glasses — he even still has the turtles — but he now comes across like a generic old man who reads the newspaper, complains about his back and is befuddled by technology.
Rocky is also 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 fifteenth 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 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. (At night, Adonis projects YouTube videos of his father’s fights on the wall and boxes the man he never met.)
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 were 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.
When Stallone wrote Rocky, he wasn’t a boxing fan, and 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.