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“If you wasn’t here, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. The fact that you’re here and doin’ as well as you’re doin’ gives me… What do you call it? Motivization? Huh? To stay alive. ‘cause I think that people die sometimes when they don’t wanna live no more. And Nature is smarter than people think. Little by little we lose our friends, we lose everything, we keep losing and losing until we say, ‘Oh, what the hell am I livin’ around here for? I got no reason to go on.’ But with you kid, boy, I’ve got a reason to go on. And I’m goin’ to stay alive and I will watch you make good.”
— Mick Goldmill to Rocky Balboa, Rocky V

Not all of the punches land successfully, but Creed still comes out a winner.

Find the Legacy

Rocky mentors Adonis in and out of the ring
Rocky mentors Adonis in and out of the ring

The marketing campaign for Creed makes it clear: This is the vision of Ryan Coogler, who gained considerable notice a couple years ago as the writer-director of Fruitvale Station, a drama based on a true story about a young man and a police encounter at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, Calif.

Creed is not a Sylvester Stallone vanity project wherein he’s still latching onto the glory days of Rocky’s championships and blockbuster box office. Far from it. In this edition, Rocky is clearly looking back on what were the good times and he’s struggling to find comfort in a world without Adrian and his best friend, Paulie. The drunk and belligerent frenemy died sometime after the events of Rocky Balboa and before the start of Creed. Plus, Rocky’s son moved all the way across the country to Vancouver in order to get away from the Balboa legend that hampered his life in Philadelphia.

And, in Creed, Rocky finds out he has cancer. He’s had the fight taken out of him over the years and he simply doesn’t see much reason to battle the disease. Adrian had cancer as well and Rocky was none too pleased with how her treatments failed her.

As Rocky says, only time remains undefeated.

Follow the Soul

That’s a large part of Rocky’s role in Creed. But as the title indicates, this story focuses on the Creed legend. As in Apollo Creed, the opponent turned ally from Rocky I-IV. More specifically, it’s about Creed’s illegitimate son, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station). Bounced from one foster environment to the next, with a stint in a youth lock-up facility in an effort to control his fighting spirit, Adonis (Donny to his friends) is finally taken in by Apollo’s widow, Mary (Phylicia Rashad, TV’s The Cosby Show).

Having grown into a respectable young man with a promising career in the financial industry, Donny dumps it all to go back to his roots and follow his spirit. He’s a fighter. And fighters fight. That journey takes him back to Philadelphia and Mick’s Gym, where he hopes to enlist Rocky as his coach.

And Rocky, in turn, finds a new reason to live.

Rocky Balboa, released in 2006, was a remarkable journey of the soul, one dubbed here as “the gospel according to Rocky.” But looking back on even the more maligned of the series, such as IV and V, there’s soul to be had all around (and hence that lengthy opening quote). To dig into it and appreciate that soul, viewers sometimes have to get past the broad strokes of supporting cast caricatures and sports movie clichés. That’s too much to ask of a lot of people — but it’s their loss. The series as a whole is a unique 40-year journey that documents the rise and fall — and rise again — of a legend.

Creed manages to find the same tone and soul Stallone used as the bedrock of the series and Coogler populates Rocky’s world with new characters carrying quirky traits and back stories.

Live the Legend

Creed marks a significant departure for the series both in front of and behind the cameras. For one, it’s the first Rocky movie not written by Stallone. Don’t forget: The original Rocky, released in 1976, won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director; it also earned Stallone nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Actor.

Creed also marks the first Rocky movie in which Rocky doesn’t fight; he doesn’t fight another boxer, but he still puts up his dukes in the battle of life.

Coogler’s father got him hooked on the Rocky series as a kid and his familiarity with the material is clear. Reference is made to a “behind closed doors” bout between Rocky and Apollo; that’s the fight that ended Rocky III and started Rocky IV. Who won? Well, Rocky can talk about it now.

Other standards from the previous six movies, such as the horizontal scrolling title crawl and musical staples are either outright eschewed or used sparingly in Creed. The most important ingredient is the chemistry in the characters’ relationships and, in stark contrast to the tightly-wound Tommy Gunn in Rocky V, the relationship between Rocky and Adonis feels natural.

There’s a touching, sweet scene on those famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that beautifully captures the sweep of the Rocky series and how much that character has been through. It’s a moment that, oddly enough, calls to mind the Up documentary series. Starting in 1964, Up started to follow the lives of 14 British people and provided new documentary installments on them every 7 years.

In the world of fiction, Rocky’s in an exclusive club all to himself and Stallone has used the series to share his thoughts about overcoming life’s never-ending obstacles. Yeah. Maybe it really is about those old sports clichés. It’s about digging deep. It’s about getting — and keeping — the eye of the tiger.