Director Ryan Coogler’s Creed is one of those films that surprises and delights you. Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stays true to the basic formula that made the previous films work (this is number 7 if you are counting), and Creed stands as the second best movie in the series after the original Rocky.
Of course, the ace up Coogler’s sleeve is the presence of Rocky himself – Sylvester Stallone, who slips into wearing that rumpled black fedora in an Oscar nominated performance. Stallone looks the part of an aging former boxer – slightly punch drunk, weary from years of abuse, and worn by the difficulties life has thrown at him. After being on top of the world as a champ, he knows what it is like to lose everything – now living modestly in his old house and running the restaurant named for his late wife Adrian (Talia Shire).
Still, at heart Rocky Balboa is a fighter, and thus when young Adonis Johnson (a terrific Michael B. Jordan) appears on the scene asking Rocky to train him, at first Rock wants no part of it. When Adonis reveals that he is the illegitimate son of Rocky’s former ring foe and friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky comes around and agrees to help the kid out.
There is a back story for Adonis, who grows up not knowing who his father was until Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) pays him a visit in a Los Angeles juvenile detention center, where he has already established a name for himself as a fighter. Mary Anne, despite the fact that Adonis is the son of a woman with whom her husband had an affair, takes the boy in and raises him as her own.
Now an adult, Adonis lives well in the Creed mansion, but he quits his job and has bigger plans for himself. Wanting to make it as a boxer but not in his father’s shadow, Adonis goes by the name Johnson when he fights. After leaving home and going to Philadelphia to meet Rocky, Adonis eventually trains and starts getting fights.
After one fight someone reveals Adonis’s true identity to the media – and this opens up internal and external conflicts for the young man and his trainer. While Adonis is worried about living up to his father’s legacy, Rocky is trying to do his best to train his old friend’s son but is mindful of the price the kid will have to pay now that his heritage is revealed.
There are side stories with Adonis having a relationship with Bianca (a radiant Tessa Thompson), a young singer who lives in an apartment below his. Rocky also has to deal with a medical diagnosis that could be life threatening, and the extended metaphor involved is old fighters don’t give up and they never will fade away either.
Great narrative touches bring closure to some Rocky story lines involving his wife Adrian, her brother Paulie, and Rocky’s son. All of these things feel right and become woven into the fabric of the tale about a grizzled old boxer helping to train a younger one, similar to the first Rocky when old Mickey (Burgess Meredith) trains Rocky.
At the center of the film is Jordan, a talented young actor who explodes on the screen as a dynamic and powerful presence. He makes Adonis strong yet vulnerable, smart but somewhat naïve, loving and yet hardened because of his past. All these things come through in an indelible performance that most definitely is Oscar worthy.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Rocky film without the appearance of a tough, big bad opponent. In this case it is “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) as the light heavyweight champ whose manager Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish) convinces him that a title bout against the son of Apollo Creed would be a big deal.
The boxing scenes are excellent – filled with blood, sweat, and an amazing choreography of punches and clutches and corner chats between Rocky and his protégé. Coogler manages to capture the essence of what made the first Rocky such a success, while paying homage to the previous films and the city of Philadelphia as well.
Along the way the strength of the film is the relationship that develops between Rocky and Adonis. Rocky becomes the father figure that Adonis never knew, and Adonis is the son that Rocky somehow let go away. In this way both men not only show respect for each other but the memory of Apollo, the father and friend they both have lost.
Creed is not just a great boxing movie but a fine film. Stallone should be credited for taking this role and doing it with grace and dignity, yet still pulling no punches as a former fighter with a heart of gold. He also wisely yields to Jordan as his successor in the ring and in the film series.
Go see Creed; I guarantee it will make you a believer!
Photo Credits: Warner Brothers