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It’s fair to say that Rocky set the template for all future sports movies. But it was also about something deeper and more unnerving: a story about a human being who takes on a fight they have absolutely no chance of winning, knowing they have no chance, but doing it anyway. Released in 1976, when the blight of deindustrialization was getting underway, Rocky followed an unknown boxer from working-class Philadelphia who somehow got himself into a PR-stunt boxing match with reigning heavy-weight champion Apollo Creed. It was about the existential dread of living your entire life in society’s forgotten shadows, and taking one desperate crack at escaping that fate.

Rocky II was a damn good film in its own right, and in many ways a natural continuation of the story. But after that the sequels got progressively more cartoonish, and to a large extent they had to: once Rocky became famous, the dark core of the original story was abandoned by definition. But then Rocky Balboa found an elegant way to break out of this trap, by presenting an aging and retired Rocky who gets into another PR-stunt boxing match with the latest heavy-weight champion. It reworked the original story, and this time the existential dread cut right down to the fear of death and mortality itself.

All of which leaves the new Creed in something of a pickle. There’s no way it’s not going to be retread of the same old Rocky plot. So it’s going to have to find its own version of Rocky and Rocky Balboa’s existential power. Otherwise, it will leave us wondering what the hell the point was.

Cooked up by writer and director Ryan Coogler, the plot concerns Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Creed by an illicit affair. He spent his youth bouncing around foster homes and petty crime, and Creed opens with a powerful scene in which the boy, having just gotten into a fight, is visited in juvenile detention by Apollo’s widow Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad).

In an act of remarkable compassion, Mary Anne takes Donnie under her wing, and once he grows up he gets a job at a financial firm. But his father’s profession still calls to him, and Donnie makes money on the side boxing in Mexico. Eventually he quits the corporate world and moves to Philly to train full-time as a boxer, which is when he hunts down Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and convinces him to serve as his trainer. Donnie also strikes up a romance with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), his singer-songwriter neighbor.

Donnie wants to make his own way, so he and Rocky keep his parentage under wraps. But eventually people sniff out the truth, and the management team for the latest reigning heavy-weight champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), gets wind of it. And so, once again, a PR-stunt boxing match is set up, and the underdog finds himself going in against impossible odds.

This is really where Creed’s problems set in. The decision by Coogler and his fellow writer Aaron Covington to have Mary Anne raise Donnie means he spends much of his childhood surrounded by wealth and mansions. There’s certainly an appeal to the idea of a young man deliberately throwing off a life of privilege, and returning to working-class Philly to reclaim his father’s legacy from the bottom up. But it also means Donnie is never that much of an underdog. The film presumes Conlan will win, but it never conjures that gut-level sense of poignant doom that pervaded the original Rocky.

All that said, the dialogue, the two main performances by Jordan and Stallone, and Coogler’s creative, fleet-footed direction are all exquisite. The script never goes in for cant or cheap emotional tugs, and the nostalgia service – while present, particularly when it comes to the score by Ludwig Goransson – is subtle and unobtrusive. Jordan, always a solid actor, plays Donnie as upstanding and self-possessed, his simmering anger and self-doubt usually kept under strict control. There’s also a good deal of youthful enthusiasm: one of Creed’s best moments is when Donnie and Rocky decide to accept the match, and Donnie literally shouts out, “I’m fighting Ricky Conlan!”

But it’s Stallone who really shines here. He’s always been a better actor than he’s gotten credit for. And with Coogler’s aid he nails the performance of a grizzled Rocky who has now put both his wife and his best friend in the ground. He remains endearingly down-to-earth, and greets old acquaintances and tends to his restaurant with good spirits. But there’s also a wrenching scene where Rocky confesses that, while he’s learned the patterns by which to keep putting one foot in front of the other, he sees little point in doing so. The cracks in Stallone’s voice during this speech are some of his finest moments as an actor. So Donnie’s entrance into his life gives Rocky a new project and purpose,

I should also mention that Coogler’s staging and cinematography during the fights is riveting. People in the audience during the screening were literally shouting and jumping out of their seats at moments.

This makes it all the harder to admit that, as special as some of its moments are, Creed is basically just a gimmick movie – though it’s probably the best-executed gimmick movie I’ve ever seen in my life. The story is thoroughly conventional, and doesn’t really have anything particular to say. Even the question of an elderly Rocky has already been handled before with more thematic resonance. Creed really has no creative reason to exist besides some fan somewhere suddenly sitting bolt upright and exclaiming, “Wait! What if Apollo Creed’s long-lost son got into boxing, and tracked down an aging Rocky to be his trainer?!” It isn’t the worst idea in the world, but I was hoping for something beyond just that.

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