Who in Fresno does not love an underdog story? We always love to see a well told story about a small timer with heart and will working hard to make a name for himself, both in the ring and in life. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we love the Rocky franchise so much? Since the release of the original, classic film in 1976, Sylvester Stallone’s signature character, Rocky Balboa, “The Italian Stallion,” has inspired people for decades. A small-time, working-class fighter from the Philadelphia slums who gets a once-in-an-lifetime chance at the big time to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. The film became an instant classic that has spawned five sequels. Over the course of these films Rocky became a true cinematic icon as he faced multiple different opponents such as Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, and more. And not only has Rocky become a household name, so have many of his friends, including his wife Adrian Pennino, trainer Mickey Goldmill, and his best friend and brother-in-law Paulie. While the sequels may not have matches the quality of the original, the have all been very, very strong and enjoyable (with the arguable exception of Rocky V), forging it into who of the most popular film franchises of all time.
The most recent entry into the main series has been 2006’s Rocky Balboa, a surprise success that exceeded box office expectations and earned wide critical praise. It was a return to form for the franchise, but now the story of Rocky take a back seat to welcome in a new, young addition into the world, and to great surprise and much relief, it really works!
Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler, is both a spin off of the Rocky franchise and continuation of Rocky Balboa. As the title suggests, the film does not actually feature Rocky as the main character but Creed…Not Apollo Creed, who was tragically killed in the ring in Rocky IV, but his son, jstriving to make a name for himself in the boxing world, but wanting to make his own name rather than having to live his life in his father’s shadow.
In 1998, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the son of an extramarital lover of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, is serving time in a Los Angeles youth facility when Creed’s wife, Mary Anne (played by Phylicia Rashād), pays him a visit and offers to take him in. In the year 2015, Donnie (played by Michael B. Jordan) chooses to walk away from his job at a securities firm to pursue his dream of becoming a professional boxer. Mary Anne vehemently opposes this, remembering how her husband was killed in the ring in his fight against Ivan Drago 30 years earlier. He tries to get a slot at Los Angeles’ elite Delphi Boxing Academy, but is turned down. Donnie remains determined however, and he travels to Philadelphia in hopes of getting in touch with his father’s old friend and rival, Robert “Rocky” Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone).
Donnie tracks down Rocky at his Italian restaurant, Adrian’s, named in honor of his deceased wife, and asks Rocky to become his trainer. Rocky is reluctant to get back into boxing, having already made a one-off comeback at a very advanced age, despite having suffered brain trauma during his career as a fighter. However, he eventually agrees. Donnie trains at the Front Street Gym, with several of Rocky’s longtime friends as cornermen, and also finds a love interest in Bianca (played by Tessa Thompson), an up-and-coming singer and songwriter.
But after “Hollywood Donnie” defeats a local fighter, word gets out that he is Creed’s illegitimate son. Rocky gets a call from the handlers of world light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by Tony Bellow), who is due to be forced into retirement by an impending prison term. He offers to make Donnie his final challenger—provided that he change his name to Adonis Creed. Donnie balks at first, wanting to forge his own legacy. But the opportunity to make something of his career and begin forging his own legacy seriously weigh on his thought, and at the same time Rocky may also be hiding something important to his own future as well. Can both of them overcome the odds and prove they still have the Eye of the Tiger?
As IGN put it, It would have been so easy for this film to simply be billed as Rocky VII: Creed, but much like the main character, the movie instead wants to stand on its own two feet without having to be held up by the reputation of the previous films. What is truly remarkable about it is…it works!
Creed is probably one of the most engaging and human stories this examiner has seen this year. We appreciate Donnie early on as we see that this young man, who had never know his father since Apollo died before he was even born, nevertheless has a lot in common with him. Specifically, ever since he was boy he has loved to fight and he has a natural gift for it. His struggle to establish a name for himself reminds this examiner of celebrities that get into acting when their parents are proven celebrities. like how Nicholas Cage changed his name so he would not be measured against his own father, just as a vague example. More than that, he is a young man trying to convince himself that he isn’t a mistake, not an accident, that he matters.
Indeed, the decision to make Donnie the result of an affair that Apollo had against his wife was a bold one, and there is dialogue given by sports commentators about whether his existence will taint his father’s legacy. Obviously this kind of word-of-mouth is unfair to Donnie, but sadly it is representative of the real world. The last thing Donnie wants is for people to brush him off an an imposture of his father, and that fear and desire to prove himself, to set himself apart, is what drives him to be what he is.
But as good as Donnie struggle is, the real draw of this film is the relationship that forms between Donnie and Rocky. simply saying that Rocky has now been recast in the Mickey role would be oversimplifying it, but where we find Rocky in this story after the events of Rocky Balboa is a natural, logical extension of the character we all know. By this point not only has he lost Adrian but (spoiler alert) we also learn that Paulie has passed away and that Rocky’s son Robert has moved away with his family after the last film. This leaves Rocky in a rather lonely place, not weak, just without much purpose. It makes sense that he does not embrace the idea of training Donnie when he meets him (plus, lets not forget what became of his training Tommy Gunn in Rocky V…if you choose to count that one), but the scenes where both men size each other up to get the hang of one another is figure out what the other is made of are extremely enjoyable and satisfying.
Their relationship soon enough takes on father-son level of closeness as Rocky gives Donnie the kind of training that fits his character, putting him through exercises similar to how he was trained, but Rocky never become a parody of Mickey or Apollo or other trainers seen before in the series. In won’t say much more, but there is a dark character revelation revealed well into the film that strains their relationship (not to mention comes as a blow to Rocky fans), and that, as bittersweet as is is to admit, furthers the thematic “passing the torch” structure of this story.
But Rocky is not the only major bond that Donnie makes, he also gets into a relationship with Bianca. There relationship is not nearly as central, but it is not at all intrusive or unwelcome. Bianca is actually fleshed out enough as a character for what she is here to do. I liked the tragic irony that she is working to make it as a singer-songwriter despite having progressive hearing loss. Again, to simply label her as Donnie’s Adrian would be way too simplistic, but she is a welcome addition to the Rocky story line nevertheless.
If there is anything holding Creed back, it may be that a lot of this structure feels very familiar. If you’ve seen a Rocky movie before, particularly the first one, you know what to expect here. Anyone going into this expecting a radical reshaping of the formula will probably be disappointed., but the genius here is that rather that changing the formula the film instead emphasizes why the formula exists and why it works so well, maybe in the best way since…well, the original Rocky. Again, who doesn’t love a sports story focusing on the rise of an underdog?
Of course, this being a boxing movie, the boxing scenes need to impress, and in Creed the most certainly do. Donnie has two major fights with Rocky as his trainer and the first one is really innovating both for a Rocky film and for a sports film in general. The fight is filmed in what appears to be a single continuous shot, the camera dancing around the ring almost as a third opponent. This fight is easily one of the major highlights. The second fight, the climactic showdown against Conlan, isn’t quite as well orchestrated, but it still absolutely manages to get the audience rooting for Donnie to come out on top as we go through twelve rounds of edited fisticuffs. Actually, the fighting in this film, particularly the climax, get pretty brutal and very bloody, a grim reminder of how dangerous Donnie’s choice of sport really is and, subconsciously, a grim reminder of his father’s fate before him.
But as with any film, Creed lives and breathes on its performances. Michael B. Jordan is spectacular as Adonis Creed, getting up into his character’s head as he makes his way in his chosen career and in forging his life. Jordan has been in talks to be one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood right now and after seeing him in this I serious hope that his career goes on to bigger things because he absolutely deserves it! Sylvester Stallone returns once again to the role that made him a household name, this time getting to play to his age rather than in defiance of it like in, say, the Expendable films, giving us a aged, learned, battle-weary Rocky Balboa, but still recognizably the same man we all remember. Stallone brings all his acting chops to the table regardless of his not being the main character this time, and he plays all the emotions the character goes through with ease, his mastery of this role showing through. Tessa Thompson holds our attention as well as Bianca, with her scenes with Jordan convincing us of their chemistry despite some inherent cheese. Phylicia Rashād sells the worried mother role as Mary Anne Creed, worried about her son’s future for getting into the career that killed his father, but she also convinces you why Donnie is secretly afraid of her, like she is the one opponent that he can never hope to defeat. Wod Harris doesn’t really get any notable lines to say as Tony “Little Duke” Evers, one of Donnie’s cornermen and assistant trainers, but he projects the air of a aged man who has seen many good fights and can keep up with all of the punches that Donnie can give him in the gym. His real presence in this film is as a welcome legacy character, as his plays the son of Tony Evers Sr., the trainer of Apollo and later Rocky in the previous films. Tony Bellow appears as “Pretty” Rick Conlan, playing the role with a roughness, arrogance, and yet beneath that there is a sense of dignity for the sport that can be found within, even if he is too standoffish to let it show in the ring. Graham McTavish is totally convincing as Tommy Holiday, Conlan’s trainer, selling a tough, no-nonsense character that is out to secure his pupil a victory before he goes to prison. Other performances include Andre Ward as Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler, and Gabriel Rosado as Leo Sporino.
Overall, Creed is an excellent film and a more than welcome continuation of the Rocky legacy. It may not be totally flawless and much of it will likely feel familiar, but those issues are so minuscule that that hardly even matter. The human drama is solid, the acting is excellent, and even the fighting is very well handled and in one instance even innovative for a sports drama. This examiner enthusiastically recommends it and gives it a very, very high four stars!