Rousing in spirit, surprisingly emotional and visually dynamic, filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s first studio movie “Creed” is a worthy successor to the best of the “Rocky” movies and proves the young director is the real deal. But as a movie concerning emerging from a father’s shadow and carving out your own legacy, it’s fairly safe and familiar —it’s ironic just how much “Creed” is indebted to the early “Rocky” films and never finds its own distinct identity.
“Creed” begins in flashback: Adonis Johnson is a troubled orphan who has been in and out of juvenile detention centers in Los Angeles for most of his life. Busted for what we presume is yet another fight, he receives an unexpected visit from Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who reveals that he is the illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, seen in photos and borrowed nostalgic footage from “Rocky 2”). Cutting to present day, Adonis, aka “Donnie” (Michael B. Jordan) is a 20-something who has been adopted by Mary Anne and living a routine, uninspired life. He constantly watches old footage of his father’s legendary bouts and it’s clear that fighting is in his blood. He begins to box illegally in Tijuana, and quickly falls out with his mother when he reveals he’s quit his job and wants to devote his life to boxing 24/7. Having endured the death of the man she loved due to this almost certainly deleterious sport, Mary Anne disavows his plan, and Donnie heads to Philadelphia in hopes of starting his career in the not-so-sweet science.
A presumptuous, even entitled millennial, Donnie’s chutzpah leads him practically straight to Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), long retired from the fight game and presently running his Italian restaurant Adrian’s. After eventually revealing that he’s the son of Apollo Creed, Balboa’s onetime opponent and later best friend, Donnie brazenly asks Balboa to train him the way that his father had been, but the wary 60-something gently turns him down. But Donnie —who shamelessly calls Rocky “Unc” — persists and eventually Balboa agrees to train him.
One of the highlights of “Creed” is Stallone’s best performances in years. He’s not sleepwalking here —as the heart and soul of the movie, he lends emotional gravitas. Rocky knows his best days are long gone, the most important people in his life have departed and he’s staring down his life’s back nine. Stallone’s subtle turn understands wise men are more tempered and he is counterpointed by the spiky and tireless Jordan, who commits fully to a character loaded with daddy and abandonment issues. The pair comprise a family unit, eventually augmented by the charming Bianca (a magnetic Tessa Thompson), a brassy and independent Philadelphian electro-soul R&B artist suffering from progressive hearing loss who begins dating Donnie. In a way, her days are numbered too, but she’s trying to enjoy each day as it comes, something the often tense Adonis hasn’t learned to do.
While slowly working his way up the ranks and gaining attention by having Rocky Balboa in his corner, Adonis eventually gets a big if undesired break when his lineage, which had been kept under wraps, is leaked to the press. Looking for a big pay day and press, British light-heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew) —who is facing a six-year prison stint and hopes to leave some money for his family— sees Creed as a big opportunity for worldwide publicity. The driven, hungry Creed cannot resist the challenge, even when Balboa tries to discourage him. It should be said that a world title fight taking place after one professional bout is far-fetched, but “Creed” has a way of getting the audience past such problems quickly by sticking to the character’s dreams, desires and anxieties.
A kind of love letter to Philadelphia, the film finds Coogler tapping into much of the local culture, music, trends, slang, hot spots and the “bike life” phenomenon involving dirt bikes and ATVs, which the director incorporates into one incredibly stirring scene of Adonis training. Perhaps the strong Philadelphia orientation of the movie leans on the “Rocky”-ness of the movie a little too hard. “Creed” isn’t shy about its nods to the “Rocky” franchise —the iconic running up the steps of the Philadelphia art Museum, the chasing of chickens as an old school training method— and it could have easily dialed them back. Moreover, the “Creed” plot is fairly recognizable, even formulaic, following some of the “Rocky” story beats blow for blow, particularly the film’s conclusion.
The emotionally gripping moments do a lot for the movie. Coogler’s film takes plenty of time investing into the characters, their pains and humanity. When Rocky hits his own personal crisis, this dramatically changes the dynamic between him and Adonis. And when briefly rejected, the young man, desperate for a father figure, lashes out with the senseless violence we can feel is inherent to an boy who went through the brutal foster care system. Occasionally, the overpacked conflicts are poured on too heavily —Rocky is diagnosed with life threatening ailments, Donnie falls out with both Rocky and his girlfriend and landing in jail from a brawl— and nearly threaten to break suspension of disbelief. But like the dubious plausibility of the concluding battle, the movie manages to walk the fine line skirting total incredulity.
But like the iconic pugilist, “Creed” always comes back from behind, creating crowd-pleasing mainstream entertainment. More than just a boxing movie, “Creed” is about family and the bonds deepening between friends.
As the director of the promising “Fruitvale Station,” Coogler’s advances as a director are particularly exciting. He jumps to a big franchise project with ease, and more importantly maintains humanity and relatability. Some of his long, choreographed tracking shots —a fight is practically done in one long shot— is thrilling, and none of it is overly polished either. “Creed” has a Philly grit that lends an air of integrity and authenticity to the need to go the distance. Still, my greatest fear would be Coogler being stuck in a new Creed franchise for several years; he’s growing more and more dynamic and seasoned and he feels like a filmmaker with many stories to tell. Yet as much as “Creed” doesn’t break the mold, it’s definitely a worthwhile entry in the series capturing the spirit of the classic “Rocky” movies. It might not be particularly unique, but as the best “Rocky” film since “Rocky II,” it’s a likable, sure-to-please commercial winner. [B]