** SPOILERS **
Writer-director Ryan Coogler's love for Rocky and the Rocky series is palpable but largely swallows up poor Adonis. Coogler trades heavily on nostalgia, employing flashbacks, clips of past Rocky vs. Apollo fights, familiar posters of the Italian Stallion 30 years ago, and Rocky's stirring musical cues. Sylvester Stallone reprises Rocky once again, and, no surprise, he is the best thing about Creed. Rocky is even older, sadder, but also wiser and more resigned to being a rock, a survivor, when all his loved ones have passed on, including Paulie. Quick exposition explains his son Rocky Jr. has moved to Vancouver with his wife, leaving Rocky all alone in the restaurant he owns. But he remains a local legend beloved by the people of Philadelphia, and his unique Rocky wit and demeanor remain intact. When Adonis Johnson -- we learn Apollo had an affair and died in the ring against Ivan Drago before Adonis was born -- turns up at his restaurant claiming to be Apollo's son and asking for training, well, as Rocky states, "I've seen this sort of thing before." He reluctantly takes the kid on as his protege and finds much more success than he did training Tommy Gunn 25 years ago. Rocky relishes being the crusty old trainer this time, delving into Mickey's old bag of tricks like making Adonis catch a chicken.
Adonis, a lean, trim light heavyweight, is a curious cat. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died soon after Apollo, he grew up in the system, a violent kid prone to fighting, until he's adopted by Apollo's wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Adonis grew up in Apollo's mansion, loved, surrounded by wealth, college educated, but he spends his weekends secretly fighting in Mexico. Adonis throws away a promising business career because he feels the need to fight, so he moved to Philadelphia to seek the tutelage of his father's best friend and greatest opponent. The quest of the son to find and become like his father is a classic and compelling narrative, but Creed muddies the waters by latching too much onto following beats from Rocky's story instead of discovering more about what is/was special and unique about Adonis and Apollo. Wouldn't you know it, after one professional fight as "Adonis Johnson," Adonis' parentage is discovered and he's offered a one in a million shot to go to London to fight the light heavyweight champion of the world because of his name -- just like Apollo once offered Rocky because he loved the nickname "the Italian Stallion."
Adonis' personal crisis becomes whether or not he should accept his father's famous last name and all the pressure that comes with living up to it. Meanwhile, old man Rocky receives truly distressing medical news. When that happens, we and Adonis become much more concerned with Rocky's mortality than with the success of Adonis' career. Adonis spends the entire movie in the shadow of two legends and never really fights his way out from under it. Jordan, a charismatic actor, does his best, though in the ring, he's an angry bull who fights like Rocky -- take hits until you get mad -- and lacks the fancy footwork and charming pizzazz of his old man. But does Adonis have the heart, of Apollo or Rocky? Does he have the Eye of the Tiger? We are forced to ask ourselves, why root for Adonis? He's not an underdog or a hard luck case; he's "Hollywood" Adonis Creed, the rich son of a beloved former heavyweight champion with a beautiful girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and Rocky Balboa in his corner. He has a long way to go to be as good as his father, if ever, and wearing the stars and striped-emblazoned trunks Apollo and Rocky both wore may speak to a legacy, but Adonis never really becomes his own man. He's certainly not yet a champion. If Creed wishes to go the distance and further continue the Rocky saga, Adonis and the audience will really, truly be lost when the sad day inevitably comes Rocky Balboa loses his final round.