Written by: Sean Wall
Rocky, a movie where the big fight at the end is almost an afterthought to the central love story and underdog tale about working class people hurting for a second shot at respect, spawned four sequels, and while they varied in quality, it wasn’t until 2006’s Rocky Balboa that star and series creator Sylvester Stallone brought the character back to his quiet roots and found a nice coda to the boxer’s tale.
The new film in the franchise, Creed, isn’t a continuation or a passing-of-the-torch film, but rather a spinoff in the best sense that manages to keep the Rocky character alive and bring him to new places while birthing a compelling new central figure. Ryan Coogler’s film, which stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate offspring of Rocky’s friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), takes a little while to find its footing as it works to hide its protagonist’s motives, but once the young Adonis and the old Rocky team up, the movie is magical. It has all of the heart of the original Rocky mixed with the goofy lightness of the better sequels.
It doesn’t matter that it’s directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, whose 2013 feature debut, “Fruitvale Station,” was one of the best films of that year. He wouldn’t be the first celebrated indie director to slip and fall off the Hollywood ladder when reaching for the mainstream.
But “Creed,” much like Rocky himself, leaves all doubts flat on the mat. It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing blast of entertainment that is not only a well-made sports movie but is also a soulful, cinematic love letter to Philadelphia, the city that has become synonymous with Rocky Balboa.
Creed begins with Adonis fighting in juvenile detention, but he’s eventually adopted by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who raises him in the lap of luxury. However, he still hungers to fight. Unfortunately for Adonis, no one in L.A. respects him and he’s too cocky to get the training he needs to become a better fighter. He packs up for Philadelphia to get Rocky Balboa (Stallone) in his corner, and the two begin to enrich each other’s lives inside and outside the ring. Adonis also starts to fall for his beautiful neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician who’s slowly going deaf.
You know you have a strong film when the romantic subplot could stand on its own as a worthwhile movie. The original Rocky is a love story, but Creed doesn’t want to copy the Rocky-Adrian dynamic or anything else from the classic 1976 film. Adonis and Bianca have a unique relationship, their own give-and-take, and it’s compelling in its own way thanks to the excellent chemistry between Jordan and Thompson.Creed may not put romance first like Rocky, but it understands the importance of love and sacrifice, and yet those elements are different for Adonis.
Working with Jordan again, Coogler has the camera track around the fighters as they ‘dance’ with each other and there’re enough generous close ups to capture each fighter’s intense focus. However, the scene we most appreciated is the long uninterrupted shot (reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s love of tracking shots) of Adonis going from his dressing room to the ring in Liverpool to square off against Conlan.
It isn’t overly dramatic nor does it contain gratuitous slow motion, but it effectively captures Adonis’s defiance as the David stepping into the home-turf of the Goliath champion. And the obligatory Rocky-esque training montage of both fighters, the classics of the series hasn’t worn out its welcome and is still enjoyable.
The only real flaw with the movie is that it mostly feels like a beat for beat remake of the original film, and with a far less compelling rival opponent. This time it’s a riches-to-rags-back-to-riches narrative, with the welcome added drama of having to clench our fists and hope that Rocky can survive the disease he is facing. With that said, it’s finally worth mentioning that Sylvester Stallone, and Michael B. Jordan for that matter, deliver performances worthy of Oscar nominations, although it is unlikely due to some rather stiff competition this year.
As it was with Rocky vs Apollo in the first instalment, Creed is the one no one has money on in a fight with the previous 6 Stallone-centered flicks. But we love watching the underdog and Creed is no different – we couldn’t help smiling as we watched. A nimble upstart, Creed manages holds its own with a new protagonist and a different take on the previous protagonist, even if it does rely on nostalgia to draw in viewers.
“Creed” is out in theaters everywhere!