“Creed,” the first spinoff from the venerable “Rocky” series, is one of the most entertaining and exciting movies of the year. In fact, this entry, which actually centers on Apollo Creed’s out-of-wedlock son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), is the best movie stemming from Sylvester Stallone’s iconic brainchild since the original “Rocky” in 1976. Exciting, moving, sometimes humorous, this movie, modestly budgeted by modern Hollywood standards, is the first “Rocky” movie to really evoke the emotional response of the Capra-esque original since the original.
Ironically, this is also the first franchise entry not to be written by Stallone, who has sole writing credit on all the “Rocky” movies. New blood, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) and co-writer Aaron Covington, has re-energized the series like a well-needed jump start. Thank God they didn’t try to reboot “Rocky,” maybe giving us an origin story prequel with a new actor. Not that Stallone would be likely to permit such a thing, but that would have had the villagers looking for torches and pitchforks.
At the center of this movie is Michael B. Jordan, who is not a newcomer by any means. With a string of TV credits to his name, including recurring roles on “The Wire,” “All My Children,” “The Assistants,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” and movie roles in “Red Tails,” “Chronicle,” “Fruitvale Station” and this summer’s disastrous “Fantastic Four” reboot (which was not his fault), the twenty-eight year old is already an experienced actor. But Jordan’s electrifying performance in “Creed” manages to feel like a debut. This is a star-making turn, make no mistake. Jordan brings palpable, undeniable charm to Adonis Creed, a hotheaded young man raised by the widow (Phylicia Rashad) of the famous father he never knew. Whether boxing is simply in his genes, or whether it’s been a lifelong way to deal with the anger that comes from knowing he was never planned by his parents, Adonis is angry, and Jordan keeps that emotion behind his eyes in almost every shot. He also makes the audience care, and care deeply, about Adonis conquering the personal demons that can only be exorcised in the ring.
Adonis doesn’t even use the name Creed, going instead by his birth mother’s last name, Johnson. He fights as a hobby, knocking out unranked fighters in Mexico on weekends, while working a white collar day job. When he quits the day job and moves to Philadelphia, the self-taught Adonis quickly finds he’s out of his league with ranked contenders. Unable to interest any trainers at his father’s old gym (a minor incongruity – the original “Rocky” movies make it clear Apollo Creed originally trained on the west coast) he works up the nerve to approach the man that bested his father – Rocky Balboa.
Stallone reprises his signature with a deeply nuanced and understated humility. Rocky has grown old, and has now outlived not only his wife, Adrian (played by Talia Shire in five “Rocky” movies), but his brother-in-law and frequent foil Paulie (Burt Young), last seen in the 2006 “Rocky Balboa.” If Adonis is driven to prove himself, Rocky, facing his own mortality, no longer looks to the future at all, a lonely figure despite still running the restaurant named for his late wife, and turns him down.
The audience will be no more willing to take this no for an answer than Adonis himself, and no one is surprised when Rocky eventually relents and takes the rough at the edges contender under his wing. The two start to develop a tenuous familial relationship while Adonis also meets and strikes up a romance with his initially antagonistic downstairs neighbor, a bohemian musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Adonis continues to try to keep his parentage under wraps, but the information leaks after an early win, resulting in an underdog shot at the title. Anthony Bellew is repellently charismatic as British light-heavyweight champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew), who needs a fat payday swan song bout to care for his family as he faces a potentially career-ending prison sentence.
The scenes between Jordan and Stallone play like symphonies. Stallone might finally get some Oscar love for his touching and dignified performance, which reminds us how damn good he was in the first “Rocky,” playing the character as a young man. How many actors get to keep coming back to the same character decade after decade? It’s a rare gift, not only for Stallone, but for the audience, whose long affection for this now-iconic character is well-rewarded here.
The other star on the rise here is writer/director Coogler, whose approach is close to perfect. One might wish he’d ditched the gimmick of freeze-framing to superimpose a fighter’s stats every time a new one is introduced. It takes the viewer out of the movie. Forget that, though. Almost every other decision he makes is golden. He has a wonderful eye for detail: Adonis helping Bianca braid her hair, a sudden (and believable) physical manifestation of nervousness before a big fight. He likes grit, he likes edgy, and he finds it often, following Rocky and Adonis into a low-rent boxing gym wallpapered with posters for bouts fought in an earlier century. It photographs like an ascent into Hell, and at the same time, this is the gateway to redemption, where Adonis finds his soul as a fighter, and learns, as Rocky puts it, that the man in the mirror is greatest opponent.
The camerawork is fluid, though hardly balletic. As a filmmaker, Coogler is two generations removed from the introduction of the Steadicam, which freed directors and cinematographers from the restrictions of the dolly track. Like many of his peers, Coogler doesn’t see in terms of sets, but in a completely realized three dimensional, visual environment. One of the great bugaboos in the past was to follow a shot with one from 180 degrees opposite. It was called crossing the proscenium, and almost always resulted in a jarring jump cut. You can’t cross the proscenium when there is no proscenium. This is as modern-looking a movie as they get, and as streetwise as the original “Rocky” looked in 1976 (and it did), this is a more fully evolved creature altogether. Adonis’ first major fight in the movie is shot with astonishing precision in one long take, the camera circling the fighters, almost a participant, taking us with it.
Coogler knows when to evoke the original movie, and just as importantly, when not to. But he also knows, and honors, audience expectations, sometimes playfully teasingly. Ludwig Göransson’s score reminds one of Bill Conti’s now-iconic original “Rocky” score, but only uses Conti’s music sparingly, carefully, and very, very strategically. This is a “Rocky” movie after all, and the training sequences are plentiful, and the climactic fight is a ratcheted-up, no holds barred and often bloody extravaganza. Joyce Carol Oates said it best: No one talks about “playing” boxing.
The first “Rocky” was Stallone’s metaphor for his own struggling career, and the admittedly uneven slate of sequels often mirrored the ups and downs of his career, including the wealth and fame following a major hit, followed by comeback attempts after a string of flops. Bringing Rocky back as a septuagenarian was risky – had it backfired it would have been a bad SNL sketch. And with “Creed” Stallone also took the risk of handing his signature character over to another writer and director. He deserves great credit for taking both risks. “Creed” goes the distance when no one is saved by the bell. It couldn’t have been done much better.