Take away every rooted piece of cheesy disconnect and disdain you have calcified in your hearts and minds for whatever bloated quality you remember or assigned to the six-film “Rocky” series and shelf it immediately. The spin-off film “Creed” is a new tangent that gracefully and respectfully builds from the nostalgic anchor that comes with the “Rocky” territory, but grows to never be bound by that history for a second. Ryan Coogler’s film successfully strives to be its own bold and rousing saga fitting of the shared connection. “Creed” will reignite the great aspects you remember from “Rocky” and build its own fanbase for a new era.
“Fruitvale Station” and “Chronicle” star Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the late and great former heavyweight champion of the world. Found as a brawling and violent pre-teen in juvenile detention, Apollo’s widowed wife Mary Ann (“Cosby” matriarch Phylicia Rashad) adopts him and raises him in California privilege. Adonis dislikes his father’s shadow and has taken Mary Ann’s maiden name. He grows up to become an emerging young financial executive, but Adonis cannot his escape his thirst and desire to fight. He is self-taught and moonlights on the weekends taking bar room boxing matches in Tijuana without Mary Ann’s consent.
His request to train in Los Angeles is denied by Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris), the son of Apollo’s trainer Duke running an academy in Apollo’s name. Wanting more, Adonis quits his job, leaves Mary Ann, and heads to Philadelphia to train full-time to be a boxer. He is admitted and put on the backburner by trainer/manager Pete Sporino (Ritchie Coster) at a revitalized Mighty Mick’s Gym. Anxious and driven to raise his game to the next level faster, Adonis seeks out the “Italian Stallion” himself, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Just as we last saw him nine years ago, the retired former champ still bounces that racquetball on the street wearing a shabby fedora and runs Adrian’s, an Italian restaurant named after his departed wife.
Rocky, now pushing 70, still feels responsible for Apollo’s death as his corner man in the Ivan Drago fight. He implores Adonis not to repeat his father’s fate. Adonis pressures Rocky’s guilt and reluctance until he agrees to take him on as a pupil. The two become a nearly inseparable pair. In his downtime, Adonis meets and falls for Bianca (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People”), a local singer-songwriter battling progressive hearing loss. When Adonis’s secret heritage is revealed to the public and the light heavyweight landscape shifts, he is thrust into a showdown with Liverpool’s “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (former WBC champion Tony Bellew), the reigning champion looking to gild his legacy feasting on a name like Creed.
The compelling performances in “Creed” are through the roof. Tessa Thompson lends her voice to several songs on the soundtrack and offers a multi-layered love interest with intelligence and sparkling creativity. After years of playing characters younger than his age, Sylvester Stallone embraces his humanity to brilliant perfection as the aged Balboa. Palpitating grizzled sage wisdom and a tremendous amount of pride and dignity, Sly elevates his beloved signature character to a whole new level. Believe it or not, the Oscar buzz that is building for him is more than warranted.
“Creed” may carry the “Rocky” mantle, but this is wholeheartedly Michael B. Jordan’s film. His magnetic chemistry with both Thompson and Stallone is marvelous. Without Jordan, this film goes nowhere, even with the presence of the iconic Stallone. The young actor is ferocious in and out of the ring and the film hangs on his character’s arc of exorcising hate and building heart.
Jordan will pull the punches and cheers right out of your own fists and lungs during the film’s technically superior fight scenes. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“The Wrestler”) uses an over-the-shoulder, Steadicam-based camerawork that takes you inside the ropes better than arguably any boxing film to date without the cheap theatrics of POV shooting. This is the film “Southpaw” could only hope to be in its wildest dreams. That effect is punctuated further by the best film score and soundtrack combination of the year. Jay-Z label composer Ludwig Goransson downplays the trumpeted brass of Bill Conti’s classic cues with added choral layers that give an ethereal voice and a modern beat to the original musical themes.
The highly talented Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) directs and writes “Creed” with a confidence and strength of story to enable this film to forge a distinctive path all its own. His narrative radiates a rawness not seen since the first “Rocky” film 39 years ago. His presence and expertise allowed franchise steward Stallone to pass the reigns and focus on his acting. Coogler chooses the right touchstones to honor the “Rocky” legacy without needing it as a creative crutch. Inflated spectacle is replaced by a welcome return to the grit and determination that made us fall in love with this heroic terrain. The emotions are real rather than pontificated and swell in all the right places.
Lesson #1: Mentors as father-figures— Rocky Balboa has now come full-circle, taking on the “Mickey” role as a trainer instead of a fighter. Vigilant and dedicated, Rocky wants to see the troubled son of his greatest rival and friend turn out for the better. Other than his adopted mother, Adonis never had anyone who showed care and attention for him. As his defacto “uncle,” Rocky becomes a classic father-figure as well as a mentor for the young man.
Lesson #2: Creating your own legacy to embody and respect— Many people take on a path of destiny that is preordained for them. Adonis could easily punch his ticket with the Creed name. Instead, Adonis wants to make his own footsteps in following the fighting that he finds in his blood. Like so many sons of greats, he has much to prove to earn the proper, let alone the equal, respect.
Lesson #3: Fighting to the end in every aspect of life— Mortality lasts longer than legend and both Adonis and Rocky have fights in front of them in “Creed.” In classic “Rocky” themes, Balboa preaches that Adonis’s toughest opponent will always be himself and that life is harder than anything in the ring. Winning at fighting is about how much you can take and still move forward, in and out of boxing.