Movie Review: ‘Creed’

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Plot:  Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) never knew his famous father, heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.  The offspring of an affair between Creed and Adonis’ mother, Johnson grows up amidst foster homes and juvenile detention centers until Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) tracks Donnie down and takes him in.  Although raised by Mary Anne to be a white-collar worker, Donnie secretly sneaks off to Mexico to fight in underground boxing matches.  When Donnie decides to quit his lucrative securities job and pursue boxing, Mary Anne shuts him out and Adonis discovers no trainer in Los Angeles will have anything to do with him.  Undeterred, Adonis heads to Philadelphia to track down his father’s famous rival and best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in hopes that Rocky will train him.  Hesitant at first, Rocky eventually accepts.  But can Adonis shrug off the shadow of his father and forge his own path?

Review:  The Rocky films were a seminal part of my childhood.  I grew up watching the iconic Italian Stallion pummel guys like Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago.  Rocky III and Rocky IV were always my favorites.  What kid (or adult for that matter) didn’t feel an insatiable urge to run up a mountain when they watched Rocky’s training montage featuring John Cafferty’s song “Heart’s on Fire” in Rocky IV?  It wasn’t until I got older that I learned to appreciate the original Rocky and Rocky II for their story as much as the boxing action.  Although Rocky Balboa redeemed the putrid pile of excrement that was Rocky V, I thought that was the last we’d seen of the iconic character on the big screen.

I was wrong.  And boy am I glad I was.

Make no mistake this isn’t a Rocky movie per se, but rather an original film that pays tribute to the past and manages to forge its own path while avoiding excessive nostalgia.  Creed stands apart as one of the better boxing movies ever to grace the silver screen.  It’s right on par with Raging Bull and of course, Rocky.  Creed wasn’t what I expected but the end result (with a few minor grievances) was a better movie than I could have possibly imagined.

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While Stallone reprises his role as the titular Rocky Balboa (I’ll get to his performance in a bit) this film is first and foremost Michael B. Jordan’s movie.  As a young actor in the title role, he carries this film from start to finish.  Jordan demonstrates grit and determination balanced with a genuine sweetness that endears the audience to him, just as audiences fell in love with Stallone’s Balboa almost forty years ago.  Additionally, the chemistry between Jordan and Stallone electrifies the screen with multiple scenes that resonate with humor and intensity.  Not to be outdone, Jordan’s chemistry with Tessa Thompson, who plays Bianca, a singer and Adonis’ love interest, is just as good.  Thompson (SelmaDear White People) delivers a nuanced Bianca that’s the anti-Adrian.  She’s a strong-willed and independent woman that’s the perfect match for Adonis.

Screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington also made a smart choice when creating the character of Adonis Johnson.  Rather than making him the legitimate son of Apollo Creed, he’s the product of an illicit affair.  I don’t think audiences would feel as much connection to Adonis if he’d been a silver spooned heir apparent.  Instead Donnie possesses a real chip on his shoulder and looks to blaze his own trail to boxing greatness.  Movie fans familiar with the severely overlooked Fruitvale Station surely recognized Jordan’s talent, but I’m positive Creed will catapult him into the national spotlight.  And with good cause I might offer.  Jordan also looks the part physically.  I can’t imagine how much time and effort he needed to put in to get into this kind of shape.  Dude looks like a real life Adonis.  Moreover (and I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks this) he looks like he could be Carl Weathers’ son.

As much as this is Jordan’s film, it’s also director Ryan Coogler’s movie through and through.  For a guy under thirty with only one directing credit to his name, Coogler (who also directed Jordan in Fruitvale Station) demonstrates a deft touch to storytelling that’s lacking in directors twenty years his senior.  There’s a line that Rocky keeps repeating in Creed, “One step, one punch, one round at a time.” Similarly, Coogler builds Creed one line, one shot, one scene at a time.  And the results are phenomenal.  There’s not a single extraneous scene in Creed.  Every scene, from the opening shots of Adonis in a juvenile detention center to the final round of Adonis’ fight with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew),  Coogler makes every second count.  Coogler showcases nods to the original Rocky, such as some well shot montage scenes and hints of Bill Conti’s original score from composer Ludwig Goransson.  Yet Creed never once comes across as self-indulgent nostalgia.  The result is a cohesive film that’s as inspirational as it is entertaining.

And then there’s Stallone.

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Stallone’s portrayal of Rocky Balboa has ranged from captivating (Rocky) to hokey (Rocky V).  However, what Stallone does with Balboa in Creed is truly remarkable.  Somehow he’s able to breathe new life into an old character and delivers a subtle, powerful, and multi-layered performance that left me asking, “Where the Hell did that come from?!”  Stallone’s Rocky is a very different person than when audiences first met him in 1976.  Adrian and Paulie are both dead and his son Robert lives in Canada.  Until Adonis comes into Rocky’s life he’s literally an old man just waiting to die.  There’s a phenomenal scene later in the movie when Rocky discovers he has cancer, where Stallone laments to Jordan that everyone important in his life is gone so there’s nothing for him to live for.  That was the scene that convinced me that the Oscar buzz surrounding Stallone’s performance was legit.  I don’t think he’ll win but he certainly deserves a nomination.

Despite being an amazing film, Creed is not without it’s flaws.  The constant text appearing on-screen highlighting individual boxers’ stats was somewhat distracting.  Additionally, although I liked Bellew’s performance as Conlan dramatically, he didn’t really resemble a boxer from a physical standpoint.  That’s odd considering he’s an actual professional boxer.

These are minor grievances however.  It in no way takes away from the fact that Creed is a phenomenal film that captivates and commands your attention.  Do yourself a favor this holiday season and treat yourself to this movie.  I guarantee you won’t regret it.

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My rating:  9/10

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