Film Reviews

‘Creed’: An Unexpected Contender

A love letter to the Rocky franchise that manages to be a fantastic sports film in its own right

What is it about sports movies that makes them so watchable? There’s something almost primal in their allure with which we can all identify, a universal thrill about beating the odds and going for the gold, win or lose. It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not you’re a fan of the sport in question, whether it be boxing (Raging Bull; Ali), baseball (Sugar), football (The Blind Side), soccer (Bend It Like Beckham) or arguably lesser physical activities (The Wrestler). They don’t even have to be dramas (Tin Cup) or, for that matter, focus on teams or specific players. Hell, Fever Pitch is about a fan on and off-season, while Moneyball deals with management and, um, math. A well-written, well-acted sports film will win over anyone, fan or not. The original Rocky was such a film way back in 1976, so effective it spawned five sequels. Now comes Creed, a spinoff-cum-remake of that franchise. Is it worthy to stand toe-to-toe with the best (and worst) of the Rocky flicks? Oh, yeah. Did I love it? Let me count the ways!

But first, the rules say I have to lay some plot on for the uninitiated, so here goes. Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a boxing legend from Philadelphia, has been retired from the sport for years and runs a restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian. Apollo Creed, his most legendary opponent and later close friend, has been dead for years, but apparently fathered an illegitimate son prior to his fatal final bout, a fact unbeknownst to all except Apollo’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, standing in for Sylvia Meals, who in turn replaced Lavelle Roby, so there). Left to the foster system after his mom passes away, the kid is taken in by Mary Anne. Since he uses his mother’s last name, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is raised with the benefits of his dad’s labor—good education, comfy lifestyle—with the added plus of anonymity. However, he’s a fighter at heart just like his old man, which is why he recruits Balboa, the next best thing to his pops, to mentor him in the sport and make a name for himself.

“Jesus, please give my boy the strength to kick ass,”
prays Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) in Creed. (SOURCE: Warner Bros.)

Creed in a Nutshell

The idea behind Creed—the bastard son of a late champion who must get out from under his father’s shadow—is pretty ingenious in and of itself, but tying it to the Rocky mythos would seem at first like marketing move, a studio cash grab based on an aging property. However, writer-director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) not only delivers on the promise of his premise, but honors the boxing franchise by repackaging its main ingredients as well as channeling its core values. His fight sequences are well edited and immersive, incorporating and improving upon real-live boxing world details introduced in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Coogler’s training montages are a throwback to the old-school films, with just the right amount of modern urban flavor mixed in to make them relevant. Carl Weathers couldn’t reprise his Apollo role for obvious reasons, but the director makes him a heavy presence thanks to well-incorporated footage from the previous installments. The filmmakers even find time to reference Burt Young’s Paulie. Where Coogler excels best, probably, is in developing Adonis’ personal relationships, both with Rocky and with love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician also struggling with personal passions. The mood is properly set throughout the movie by Ludwig Göransson’s score, which borrows elements from Bill Conti’s work in Rocky while standing on its own. Göransson uses Conti’s recognized leitmotifs sparingly and when he does, it’s pitch-perfect.

Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) Yo-Adrians Bianca (Tessa Thompson)
in Creed. (SOURCE: Warner Bros.)

Michael B. Jordan, a stand-out performer since Chronicle, is hip enough for the kiddies and good looking enough for the ladies to sell Creed, yet it’s his conviction to the Adonis character’s inner struggle that carries the piece. Every acting choice Jordan makes is spot-on, from his physicality to his quiet moments. He communicates, with little dialogue, how much Adonis feels he has to prove because of his legacy and privileged upbringing. He’s not just looking for a father figure, which Rocky becomes in a way. He’s looking for his purpose in life. As for Rocky, you could argue he didn’t need to return since Stallone closed his story arc in Rocky Balboa, a film he wrote and directed as the bookend to the whole series. Coogler provides Stallone with an excellent reason, though: essentially to turn Rocky into a Mickey for Jordan’s Adonis, in a way honoring the old trainer (made famous by actor Burgess Meredith) while at the same time returning a favor to Apollo from beyond the grave.

Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) and Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) get in the ring
in Creed. (SOURCE: Warner Bros.)

Stallone’s Sly Moves

Speaking of Rocky, the icing on Creed‘s cake is Sylvester Stallone’s return to the role he penned and originated so many decades ago. Rocky Balboa, unlike James Bond, Jack Ryan or Mad Max, is one of those parts fit for only one actor. Stallone transforms the role from a one-note nostalgia show to an aging figure at peace who sees the chance to do a good deed before he passes on. People forgot how convincing Stallone was at playing a yo-spouting palooka that they thought the actor himself really was that no-brained guido for years. Here he proves his old beat-up Stallion isn’t just smarter and wittier than anyone thought, but like the actor portraying him, he’s full of heart. There are several compelling Stallone moments in Creed, of which at least one is guaranteed to choke you up. You’ll know it when it comes.

The experience of the whole movie is summarized by a scene near the end, which I won’t spoil except to say this: in the middle of the climactic fight, with the odds against him, Adonis reveals to Rocky what his true motivation has been all along and, a few perfectly timed moments later, Göransson lets it all out. Creed is much better than it probably has to be, the Rocky flick you didn’t know you’ve waited for your whole life. It’s an impressive contender in its own right, exciting and moving when the moment requires it. And if by any chance you manage to reach its climax without shedding a tear, it’ll still get to you in the end, you’ll see. Coogler, Jordan and Stallone took a novel idea and forged with it one of the greatest sports films in years.

Now showing only in theaters.

Movie title: Creed

Movie description: A love letter to the Rocky franchise that manages to be a fantastic sports film in its own right.

Date published: 2016-02-05

Director(s): Ryan Coogler

Actor(s): Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad

Genre: Drama


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