Director Ryan Coogler accomplishes something that the creator of the Rocky franchise hadn’t successfully done since Rocky III.
Try though he might, Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the original classic that John G. Avildsen directed, took a noble couldn’t miss story and put it through the sequel grinder. The end result: Rocky IV and Rocky V. Rocky Balboa, which was meant to be the franchise’s ending chapter, gets consideration outside of the original series in this corner.
Those final two films felt more like a money grab and turned the Rocky character into caricature. Stallone reduced a memorable cinematic creation to a cartoon. Creed, a film that some are calling a Rocky movie, resurrects a film favorite some of us thought gone in 1990. It opens Tuesday (Nov. 24) nationwide.
Coogler and his leading man Michael B. Jordan return the heart, soul and grit to the Rocky franchise almost 40 years after its debut. That’s no small feat given that the original film and its immediate successor Rocky II, occupy a very revered spot in the cultural pantheon and the legion of sports films.
Based on experience Coogler, who directed the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station, shouldn’t have been able to pull this off. But his script, which he co-wrote with Stallone, finds a fresh realm from which to mine the story of an underdog.
In this case that’s the story of Adonis “Donny” Johnson, the son of Rocky Balboa’s former nemesis and eventual best friend, Apollo Creed. Donny isn’t the product of Creed’s marriage to wife Marianne. He’s the son of his mistress.
That woman – who we never meet – died leaving a son without a sense of self, a name and father to the Los Angeles juvenile system. Marianne (now being played by Phylicia Rashad) tracks him down, takes him in and gives him access to the name and the lifestyle that came with it.
By all standards she is his mother right down to providing him a college education that allows him to succeed in the world of finance. But Donny doesn’t crave that kind of success. He’s been boxing on the side in Tijuana and he wants more than anything to fight professionally.
Having watched her husband die in the ring, it’s not difficult to understand which side she comes down on this. Even his father’s former cohorts believe that he’s just a soft rich kid. Yes, that just forces the chip on Donny’s shoulder to grow a little more.
He abandons L.A. heads east and tracks down Balboa, dazzles him with inside information, convinces him that he is indeed Creed’s son and talks a reluctant Rocky into training him.
There you have the heart of the film. Yes, it’s Creed’s story, but in this case it’s just as much Balboa’s in that other than his restaurant, he’s a borderline hermit, staying away from the boxing world, one that he still loves, but one that still haunts him because he shoulders the blame for Creed’s death.
Although Donny refers to him as “Unc,” Rocky becomes the ultimate surrogate father to him. He’s the one person who knew the other side of his father. The one person who could tell him what his father would say or do in a given situation.
Coogler wisely doesn’t rush the development of that relationship, giving us all of the bumps and awkward moments along the way. And Jordan and Stallone are up to the task. Jordan will be the next great American actor and he’s that good here displaying intensity and tenderness and desire with strength.
The great irony with Donny: with respect to his career, he doesn’t want to be known because of his father’s name, therefore he doesn’t use it. But the obvious longing to know who he was is there and Jordan brings that out in a realistic and touching way and there’s but reason the kid boxes – it’s his way of being closer to the father he didn’t know.
Stallone represents another irony. He spent some time running from Rocky and action roles, but eventually began to embrace that is what he will be remembered. That changes with this turn that is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Rocky’s redeemed with this portrayal that is filled with the hurt of losing his loved ones – Adrian and Paulie are dead, son Robert is off in Vancouver because he couldn’t live in the shadow of the Balboa name – and there’s sense of being lost in the character. Donny’s arrival gives him a new lease on life and it shows in Stallone’s tender, tough and heartfelt performance.
Ultimately, however, Creed is a boxing film and for a filmmaker such as Coogler, who possesses limited experience, this realizes the potential he showed in Fruitvale Station. Creed creates a new legacy while paying homage to its origins, introducing today’s generation to a classic story.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone
Studio: Warner Bros.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality
Running time: 132 minutes
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com