8.5 out of 10
Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) wants to make it big in professional boxing but under his own name rather than that of the biological father he’s never met, legendary boxer Apollo Creed. That doesn’t stop him from going to Philadelphia to seek training from Apollo’s fiercest rival and then friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who has his own fight to face.
Maybe I’m not the best person to review Creed, because I don’t have the affinity and the affection for the Rocky movies many others do. But I do like a good boxing movie… and there have been many in recent years, all of them striving to achieve the success and adoration of boxing fans that Rocky and its sequels managed to do in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
It might seem like an odd decision to create a spin-off to Sylvester Stallone’s erstwhile franchise while shifting him over to a supporting role, but Creed feels like more than just an attempt to reboot or remake (or whatever you want to call it) those beloved movies. That’s mainly because Creed gives Fruitvale director Ryan Coolger a chance to prove he’s more than a one trick pony. He’s the real deal and he really understands what appeals so much to boxing and movie fans about Rocky Balboa’s story.
Creed opens in flashback as we see young Adonis Johnson getting into a fight in juvenile detention before Apollo Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) takes the boy in. Two decades later, he’s living in Creed’s mansion while sneaking down to Mexico to get into underground boxing matches. He eventually has to leave the L.A. area as to not be recognized solely as Apollo Creed’s progeny. He decides to go to Philadelphia and track down his father’s friend Rocky Balboa, still running a restaurant named after his own late wife Adrian, and get him to train him to move up to the big leagues. As Adonis starts his training, he also hooks up with his neighbor Bianca, a beautiful partially-deaf singer/songwriter played by Tessa Thompson.
Granted, there’s definite formula at work here but it’s one Coogler accepts as he tries to give it a unique spin, spending more time developing the relationships between Adonis with Rocky and Bianca rather than overdoing it with flashy boxing sequences. There isn’t nearly as much boxing in the movie as one might expect, since it’s more about passing the torch to Michael B. Jordan, who is quite likeable and gives a solid well-rounded dramatic performance. Adonis and Bianca’s relationship may feel like the film’s weakest link, but Jordan and Thompson are so well-paired, it’s hard to not enjoy where the story takes them. There are also plenty of references to previous “Rocky” movies, especially as Rocky trains Adonis, but the nods to the past are always handled with a degree of subtlety that can be appreciated.
Stallone’s Rocky has clearly gotten old and in Creed, he’s relegated to the Burgess Meredith role, but in a good way, as Stallone delivers an equally-winning performance, giving his once mighty character a much-needed fragility. About halfway through the movie, Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, but despite his reputation as a fighter, he’s ready to give up, tired of being without his Adrian. At that point, the roles are reversed as Adonis has to push Rocky to fight the disease, and spending the time to create their bond pays off.
The film eventually stops trying to fight the usual tropes we’ve come to expect from boxing movies, including the build-up to one last fight for Adonis. Granted, it’s a little hard to believe Adonis would be getting some of the breaks he manages to get along the way, but he eventually has to accept the “Creed” name as he faces the British champ Ricky Conlan, who is looking for one last feather in his cap before his career ends… with all the supporting characters cheering Adonis on from backstage or watching television.
Sure, it’s nothing new, but Coogler is an incredibly skilled filmmaker and storyteller who makes the most of it, using fast-paced hip-hop tracks to keep the energy of the film going while making it feel current. Eventually, the film starts to incorporate orchestral music that would make Bill Conti proud, but wisely, Coogler saves the famed “Rocky” theme for the climactic finale. By the time it does kick in, you’re already totally on board with Adonis’ journey and it really helps to enjoy the fact that the movie can only be resolved in one or two ways.
The Bottom Line:
More than just an obvious corporate money grab, Creed is a darn fine boxing movie that’s able to create something new that stands alone, while at the same time paying tribute to the “Rocky” legacy in a way that fans of those movies should thoroughly enjoy.