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Rocky spinoff Creed proves that formulaic movies can still be terrific

This is the very best kind of fan film, with tremendous work from Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone.

Adonis "Donnie" Creed (Michael B. Jordan, left) gets a pep talk from Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
Adonis "Donnie" Creed (Michael B. Jordan, left) gets a pep talk from Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
Warner Bros.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There are few worse things you can call a movie than "formulaic." It implies that the film's story is predictable and uninteresting, and that the filmmaking and performances aren't enough to make up for that fact. We've all seen movies where we were 10 steps ahead of the story, and that made us disengage.



But let me make a bold statement: Movie formulas can be good things. After all, a formula only becomes one through lots of repetition — which suggests it worked for a lot of people for a long time.

I believe a movie formula can function like a kind of religious ritual. When you see the same basic story beats you've seen dozens (or hundreds) of times before, carried out in a brand new film, it can be deeply satisfying — it's an experience that harks back to all the other times you've seen this basic movie arc.

The catch, of course, is that the newest version has to be done well. It can't just be tossed off, nor can it lean on your familiarity with its tropes to make you do most of the work. The filmmakers need to make familiar plot points and ideas come alive, to tweak and update and repurpose them for new audiences.

That's hard to do well, which is how "formulaic" became an insult. But there are good formulaic movies out there. Let me introduce you to Creed.

Creed is a really well-done version of the classic underdog sports story

Donnie and Rocky work out.
Donnie and Rocky work out. Gonna fly now.
Warner Bros.

You can probably guess roughly 95 percent of what happens in Creed, on a basic story level, if I tell you it's an underdog boxing movie that's a spinoff/sequel of the Rocky franchise. Even if you haven't seen it, you know the basic story beats of Rocky — and all other underdog sports movies — because you've absorbed them through cultural osmosis.

There's going to be an athlete who can't get anyone to take him seriously. He's going to have the opportunity to face off with the biggest name in the world. He's going to head into that match with overwhelming odds against him, and then surprise everybody by making it a real fight. And the results will come right down to the wire, because winning early wouldn't be dramatically satisfying. Along the way, the athlete will have a trainer and a love interest, and he'll be surrounded by other characters with real interest in his life whose journeys will eventually become all about him.

By and large, that's exactly what happens in Creed. You are not going to leave the theater saying that screenwriters Ryan Coogler (who also directed the film) and Aaron Covington took some bold chances with the Rocky franchise.

And to a degree, anybody who works within or revives an established Hollywood franchise is expected to be a steward for the material, to not screw it up too badly for future filmmakers. That means not going too far outside the franchise's wheelhouse. (Fortunately, the Rocky films once featured a robot, so their tonal wheelhouse is vast.)

But Creed earns its stripes through devotion. Coogler's camera reveals how much he loves these movies and these characters. In all of the best senses of the words, Creed is a fan film, a movie made by someone who loved the original Rocky movies and thought he could bring something new to them. And though he rigidly adheres to the Rocky template, Coogler has indeed done just that.

Creed features a star-making performance for Michael B. Jordan

Michael B. Jordan in Creed.
This movie is going to make Michael B. Jordan a star.
Warner Bros.

With Creed, Coogler has reunited with Michael B. Jordan, the star of Coogler's breakthrough film, 2013's Fruitvale Station. A true story retelling of police killing an unarmed black man that has only grown more significant with time, that film had some rough edges — but it marked Coogler as someone with real skill at constructing evocative images, and Jordan's performance suggested he would go on to great things.

In Creed, Jordan plays Donnie Johnson, born Adonis Creed. He's the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky's world-beater opponent in the first two Rocky films; later, Apollo and Rocky become friends, until Apollo dies in the ring. (Creed places his death shortly before Donnie's birth.) Donnie, whose mother was Apollo's extramarital girlfriend, never knew his father and spent several years in foster care before Apollo's widow (played in what amounts to a strong cameo by Phylicia Rashad) found him and took him in.

The major change Creed makes to the Rocky formula is that Donnie doesn't start out with nothing. Thanks to the money his father made as a champion boxer, Donnie has led a comfortable life and now holds a solid, white-collar job. There's little of the lived-in, blue-collar feel that made the first Rocky pop so much. When Donnie steps into the ring, people call him "Hollywood," because he's from LA.

But Creed is in part driven by a need to understand where one comes from, a desire that doesn't go away simply because one grew up in a life of comfort. The unknown father at the center of Donnie's life becomes a kind of scabbed-over wound — it sometimes begins to heal, but it always reopens, and usually because Donnie has stepped into the ring to pummel some other man in a misguided attempt to build a connection with his deceased dad.

Jordan turns in a legitimately star-making performance, and he's helped at every turn by Coogler. In Creed's best shot, the camera, centered on the back of Donnie's head, follows him up a hill as he runs with abandon, training for the big fight. It's as if, for just a second, he's escaped his demons and can just be himself, not the son of a famous man he never met.

Sylvester Stallone is the best thing about this movie

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in Creed.
Sylvester Stallone has played Rocky seven times now. This is the best he's been since the first film.
Warner Bros.

None of these updates would work without the formula's other elements falling into place. In that regard, Creed has some issues. Donnie's final opponent is not nearly as well-developed as Apollo was back in Rocky, and his love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is a terrific character for two-thirds of the film — before abruptly disappearing because the story needs to isolate Donnie. (He does something sufficiently weighty to push her away, but the film loses interest in her, too, and that's less forgivable.) There are numerous places in the story where it feels like Coogler skipped a couple of dramatic beats for sake of convenience.

But the director has an ace in the hole. In casting Donnie's trainer, he's brought in Rocky Balboa himself, played for the seventh time by Sylvester Stallone. Stallone long ago became a punchline — he's a big musclehead whose post-Rocky work was mostly wooden. But his performance in Rocky earned him an Oscar nomination and some discussion that he might be the next Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino. There was a time when Stallone appeared to be a great actor waiting to happen, and it almost feels like Creed is set in an alternate timeline where he actually became one.

Stallone is magnificent here as both the film's moral conscience, telling Donnie how he might live, and a human embodiment of its stakes. Coogler's greatest conceit is that everybody in Creed is racing against time. Human bodies decay naturally. Time destroys all. One look at Stallone's saggy, craggy face will tell you that. Right now, Donnie is in his prime, but eventually he won't be. And what happens then?

I mentioned above that I believe movie formulas can function as a kind of religious ritual. And if that's true, then those who revive and adhere to them are preachers, of a sort, aiming to keep the choir happy while trying to win new converts. What makes Creed so affecting and so effective, ultimately, is the way that Coogler truly believes in this story. It might be musty and filled with clichés, but it's conveyed with all the fervor of an acolyte who wants only for you to share his passion.

Creed is playing in theaters throughout the country. If your dad is visiting for Thanksgiving, run, don't walk.

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