It was that final beat of the training montage that did it. I was sitting in a theater in San Antonio in 2015 watching Creed, the first new Rocky movie in nearly a decade, and it was opening night and I was there with my wife and two of my uncles and one of my aunts and one of my cousins. We’d gotten to that part when Michael B. Jordan’s Donnie is jogging through Philadelphia and the dirt bike and ATV guys are riding alongside him as he runs and Meek Mill is playing in the background, and as the scene built and built and built, I could feel my body filling up fat with the kind of pride and excitement and joy that only the purest, most earnest types of movies can put inside of you.
And then the Meek music cuts out and is replaced by that tempered, almost operatic Rocky music, and everything starts happening in slow motion. And then the music comes booming back in, and Donnie is shadowboxing in the middle of the road while the dirt bikes and ATVs circle around him, and then he starts screaming and barking at Rocky (who’s watching everything from a building window overhead). And that was it. That was the moment.
I looked to my right and my wife, who had no real interest in going to watch Creed, was legit crying from being so emotionally invested in the scene and the movie. And then I leaned forward and looked at the rest of the people that I’d gone there with, and all of them — the two uncles, the aunt, the cousin — were all crying, too. I’d never in my entire life seen any of my uncles cry for any reason whatsoever, and there they were, two near-50-year-old Mexican men with bones made of old concrete and hearts made of rusted iron, crying. I didn’t know what was going to happen in Donnie’s final fight with the movie’s championship boxer (“Pretty” Ricky Conlan), but I knew that no matter what I was going to be a wreck about it, and so was everyone else.
Creed was better and more intense and more soaked wet with emotion than I ever could’ve anticipated it was going to be. Every single part of it — literally every single part of it — felt perfect and was perfect. The music, the direction, Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone and Tessa Thompson and Wood Harris and Phylicia Rashad and whoever that guy was who played Pretty Ricky Conlan, and on and on and on. All of it was perfect. And there are for sure a big number of gigantic scenes in it (the aforementioned training montage; Creed’s first big fight that was shot as one long take; when Donnie challenges all the fighters at the Delphi gym; Donnie’s fight entrance with 2Pac as the backing music; etc.) but, same as we did with Good Will Hunting a year ago, we’re celebrating Creed today — on the eve of the release of Creed II — by remembering its most nuanced, textured, and small moments.
- The way Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) stops the detention worker before she says her name. One of the most enjoyable things that director Ryan Coogler does with Creed is that he offers you no cheap thrills and no cheap emotions. Everything is teased out and teased out and teased out until he decides that you’ve earned whatever feeling it is that he thinks you should have. It’s a thing he sets in place immediately, when, in the opening scene of the movie, Mary Anne Creed, Apollo’s widow, stops the detention worker from saying her name out loud when the detention worker is about to introduce Mary Anne to a young Donnie Johnson. Nobody says any version of “Creed,” in fact, until the ninth minute of the movie, and even then it comes only because Donnie is watching an old fight between Rocky and Apollo on YouTube, and one of the announcers says it. (This, I would assume, is symbolic of the way that Apollo exists only in the past for Donnie, and how untouchable and unapproachable Apollo is for Donnie despite him having grown up surrounded by his father’s aura.) (Bonus: Nobody refers to Donnie as “Adonis Creed” until he gets introduced for the final fight of the movie.)
- The way that first Rocky music comes in about five minutes in. It happens softly, immediately after Mrs. Creed asks a young Donnie if he’d like to come to live with her. It was such a smart decision to take that sound and turn it into a ghost of itself. They drop it into the background of several scenes, but it always comes on so gently and with such a careful touch that you don’t realize it’s there until your heart has already crawled up into your throat.
- That chhhhhhh noise Donnie makes when he’s psyching himself up before that fight he has in Mexico. It’s that sound from blowing a bunch of air out of his mouth while his teeth are clenched on a mouthguard. It’s a quick sound and a sharp sound, but it somehow carries the ferocity of a chainsaw starting.
- The way he walks out to his first fight all by himself. There are dozens of little things that Coogler sewed into the movie that you don’t pick up on until you run your fingers across its fabric during your fifth or sixth rewatch. Donnie walking out by himself for his first fight (and then Donnie walking out for his last fight with Rocky and a full team) is one of the more obvious ones, but also one of the more satisfying ones, what with it working to signal where Donnie is situated spiritually.
- The way Donnie starts unstrapping his gloves as soon as he knocks down the Mexican in that first fight. He does so before the referee even gets to “four” in his count as the Mexican fighter struggles to get back to his feet after getting mollywhopped. We see Donnie do a similar thing later after he knocks down Leo “The Lion” in his first fight with Rocky in his corner. (He doesn’t start taking his gloves off. He shouts at Rocky, “We got one!” as Leo is getting counted out by the referee. Donnie being a shit-talker is a clever way for the movie to tie him to Apollo, who was all-world when it came to running his mouth.) (An aside: I wonder whether Donnie speaks Spanish. He probably does, right? Prior to the fight, the referee gives the instructions in Spanish, and Donnie doesn’t flinch. Also, Donnie grew up in Los Angeles. Also, he’s there in Mexico by himself and it’s his 15th fight there and so I figure he must’ve booked all of the fights for himself. All of that adds up to me thinking that Donnie probably does speak Spanish.)
- The way he shadowboxes in front of the screen while he’s watching the second Apollo-Rocky fight. What’s interesting here is that, rather than mimicking Apollo, he mimics Rocky’s motions and punches, allowing him to, in effect, fight Apollo.
- The way Avon Barksdale says, “Your daddy DIED in the ring.” It’s so searing and biting. Wood Harris has been a phenomenal actor for so many years, and one of these days everyone is going to finally realize it.
- The way each boxer’s record pops up on the screen. It’s a nice touch.
- The way Donnie says, “He a killer, though, right?!” after he knocks down Kevin Grier. This is when Harris’s Tony “Little Duke” Evers refuses to train Donnie, implying that he’s not strong enough of a person to be a professional boxer. Donnie interrupts a sparring match between two fighters, hops into the ring, then starts shouting about how he’ll fight anyone, and that all they have to do is land one clean head shot and he’ll give them his car. One of the boxers (Kevin Grier) says he’ll do it. They start fighting, Donnie knocks him down, then yells at Evers, “He a killer, though, right?!” It’s a powerful moment, and a cocksure moment, and it’s very clear right then that Michael B. Jordan, who is at his very best when he’s being vulnerable, was able to tap into something new and equally mesmerizing for his portrayal of Donnie.
- The way Donnie looks when Danny Wheeler says that he’ll fight Donnie for his car. He realizes that it’s Danny Wheeler, the no. 1–ranked contender in the world, and all of his strength and courage falls out of his butthole.
- The way that Mary Anne still has a house phone. Donnie mentions it when he’s talking to Rocky in that restaurant when they meet for the first time. It always makes me smile. She lives in that gigantic house on that gigantic estate, but having a house phone in 2015 is still the most multimillionaire-y extravagance about her in the movie.
- Rocky’s eyebrows. They’re so aggressively darkened and groomed. It’s like the opposite of what’s happened to Allen Iverson’s eyebrows as he’s gotten older. (Look at a picture of, say, 2001 Iverson and then compare it with a picture of Iverson when he was giving his Hall of Fame speech.)
- The way Rocky says, “There is a resemblance,” when he realizes that Donnie’s telling the truth about being Apollo’s son. Rocky having a voice that sounds like an old muscle car trying to start will never not be charming.
- Pretty Ricky Conlan. I joked earlier about not knowing who played him. He was played by Tony Bellew, an actual former pro boxer from Britain. And he was so fucking good. The way he gnaws on Donnie during the pre-fight press conference is fantastic. It’s that stare that puts him over the top. It’s very menacing and very intimidating. He 100 percent looks like a guy who has earned his way in life by pounding human heads into mush.
- The fake episode of HBO’s 24/7 show, and the fake episode of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, and the fake SportsCenter drop, and the real fight commentators calling the fake championship fight. They did such a brilliant job of world-building in Creed. It feels absolutely like, yes, definitely, no doubt, Rocky is real and Donnie is real and the universe they exist in is real and a big part of that is the way that they dropped all of these little things that we know from our actual world into the Rocky world.
- The way Donnie says, “I’m Donnie,” when he first meets Bianca. He goes down to her apartment because he’s trying to sleep and she’s playing her music too loudly, only he doesn’t know that she’s the one who lives there. He bangs on the door and bangs on the door and kicks the door, and finally she opens it. He sees her, is stymied by how attractive she is, and all he can think to do is say, “I’m Donnie,” except his body is still so full of rage from being mad earlier about the noise that he growls it at her. It’s cute.
- The way Donnie’s clothes all match perfectly. He dresses exactly like how you’d imagine a guy from a rich family who’s left and is trying to make it on his own would dress.
- The way Donnie starts unloading Rocky’s truck. This one happens when Donnie goes by to see Rocky to ask him whether he has any drills that Donnie can do to increase his hand speed. Donnie sees Rocky in front of his restaurant unloading a truck, and he walks up to him and starts carrying things for Rocky. And I don’t know if this is just me being way too sensitive about turning old, but I found that part so touching. It just (to me) seemed to signify that Rocky’s work carrying his legacy and Apollo’s legacy was officially done, and that Donnie, young and strong and vibrant and capable, was going to be the one to take over for him. I don’t know. I just really love this movie, is what I’m saying.
- The way the Rocky music kicks in when Rocky’s at the cemetery. There are, as I mentioned earlier, several times when the Rocky theme music softly plays in the background. This is another one of those times. Rocky is at the cemetery and he’s communing with the ghosts of deceased loved ones and he realizes that he needs to train Donnie (he’d turned Donnie down twice already) and the music starts playing and it’s just like, “OK. It’s time. Let’s fucking go.”
- When Rocky tells Donnie to try to catch a chicken while he’s training with Rocky and Donnie catches one real quick and Rocky responds by saying, “That’s pretty good. Chickens are slowing down.”
- When Donnie and Bianca are making music together and Donnie starts freestyling and Bianca is so charmed that she forgets to keep making the music and Donnie says, “Where’d the beat go?”
- When that one trainer asks Donnie how much he weighs, and Donnie says back to him, “Probably, like, 180.” This is less a small thing and more a personal thing, but: I weigh 190 pounds. Donnie says he weighs 180 pounds. Donnie’s body looks like a Greek sculpture. My body looks like if you stuffed a bunch of tortillas into a trash bag.
- When Donnie tells Bianca that he’s going to go live with Rocky for a while, and Bianca sees Rocky and she says, “That’s your uncle? He’s white.” And then Rocky responds, “Yeah, a long time.” Tessa Thompson is so good as Bianca, a small-ish part that she pumps full of zest and vigor. There are a bunch of strings that tie Creed to the original 1976 Rocky. The way Bianca dresses — basically covering her entire body, save for her head — is a neat callback to the way that Adrian dressed.
- When Donnie wins that fight against Leo “The Lion,” and Bianca jumps in the ring and shoves him and says, “You didn’t say you had hands like that!”
- The turtles in the background of the scene when Donnie and Bianca are on the couch together. It’s another slick little hat tip to Adrian, who worked at a pet shop and sold turtles to Rocky in 1976’s Rocky. (A fun thing: Per Stallone, the turtles from the original Rocky are still alive and have an appearance in Creed II.)
- The look Bianca gives Donnie when she looks him up online, and the way Rocky turns around when Bianca asks him if there’s something he wants to tell her.
- The breath Rocky takes when he’s talking to Donnie about being sick in the locker room. It hurts.
- The anger Michael B. Jordan carries into that scene when he starts a fight backstage at Bianca’s big show. There should come a point some time in the next, I don’t know, five or six years when we look back and come to understand that Michael B. Jordan as Donnie is one of the all-time great sports movie performances. If Creed II is good, and then if Creed III is good, it could end up becoming a legacy-defining thing for him, which would be great and also so incredibly poetic, what with Stallone’s career path having been something similar in spirit and Stallone’s perceived acting ability being comparable to Michael B. Jordan’s.
- The way the nurse who’s tending to Rocky pretends to box with Donnie when she walks into Rocky’s room to check on him and Donnie is in there shadowboxing.
- The “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” shrug that Pretty Ricky gives near the end of his fight with Donnie. That whole last fight is obviously incredible — the walkout scenes for each; the way Pretty Ricky makes fun of Donnie for wearing Apollo’s shorts; the way Donnie gets manhandled in that first round; the way Mary Anne watches the fight nervously from home; the way Donnie yells at the ref when he keeps asking Donnie whether he’s OK; when Donnie starts talking shit to Pretty Ricky in the second round and then catches him with a big shot and the music kicks in and they both start fire-bombing shots at each other and Max Kellerman is screaming offscreen and Donnie and Pretty Ricky go nose to nose after the round is over; when they do that slow-motion shot and then change the lighting and Donnie and Pretty Ricky fight while drums play in the background; when Donnie’s eye gets swollen shut and the doctor comes and checks it and Donnie’s cornerman does that trick of tapping him on the neck so he knows how many fingers the doctor is holding up; when the Rocky theme music FUCKING FINALLY plays at full volume at the start of the final round. But it’s the “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” shrug that I’d like to point out here.
It happens after Pretty Ricky lands what he thinks is the shot that’s knocked out Donnie. Donnie goes down and Conlan, thinking the fight is over and that he’s escaped the war that he’s been in with Donnie, jumps up on the ropes and starts celebrating as the referee starts his 10 count. And Conlan is really and truly celebrating. He’s celebrating so hard, in fact, that he doesn’t realize that Donnie has gotten up until Conlan’s cornerman gets his attention and lets him know. And when he climbs down off the rope, he gives this tiny little shrug because he can hardly believe that Donnie’s head is still attached to his body, let alone that he’s gotten up to keep fighting. And if you watch the last fight between Rocky and Apollo in Rocky, nearly the exact same thing happens. (Apollo thinks he’s won and starts celebrating. Rocky gets back up. Apollo, perplexed, shrugs in disbelief and then they start fighting again.) It’s such a small thing, but it’s definitely there, and definitely intentional. It’s the kind of light and masterful touch reserved for only the uppermost level of filmmakers, and Coogler fucking nails it perfectly. Creed is perfect. This moment is perfect. I hope Creed II is anywhere near as intoxicating.