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Creed (2015)
Movie Reviews

Creed (2015)

The best Rocky film since the original, ready to inspire a new generation of fans and one of the year’s best.

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The dismissal of a far-fetched movie concept that “shouldn’t have worked” is a non-sequitur that doesn’t hold water. Such is the advice of small-minded critics and naysayers who, oddly, lament the lack of originality in film while poo-pooing anything that attempts just that. These are the type that retreat into the comfort of the familiar, yet act surprised when greatness emerges, apparently out of thin air.

Which brings us to Creed, the seventh entry is the unconquerable Rocky franchise, which many will say wasn’t necessary, needed, “shouldn’t have worked”. Why would anyone doubt this? The concept is so perfectly simple and narratively symmetrical I’m only shocked it’s taken them this long to pull the trigger: Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion, is now shepherding the son of a man who was once his rival, trainer, and friend to his own greatness. How could this be anything but great?

To be honest, in lots of ways, and my only answer why it’s taken this long is that the concept needed time to simmer. The Rocky franchise, nearly forty years old, embodies everything these cynics would tell you “shouldn’t work” by their low standards. Yet, somehow, they do. This is an emotionally manipulative, action-hero franchise that’s as intimate and familiar as anything before or since, one whose individual pieces have influenced popular culture in some way or another. In this era of never-ending (and ever-connecting) superheroes and space sagas, it’s good to see there’s life in the original franchise champ yet.

But Creed isn’t about Rocky, so much, as its namesake: the young Adonis Creed, or just Donny, the previously unknown illegitimate son of his former rival and friend, the deceased Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, shown in Rocky footage), fathering him out of wedlock, yet dying in the ring (by Ivan Drago’s Soviet powered hands) before he was even born.

Since then he’s bounces from foster home to detention center, smashing fist to faces along the way. When his existence becomes known, Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (an excellent Phylicia Rashād), takes him in and raises the child as her own. Despite living in luxury, he eschews the Creed name, preferring that of his late biological mother’s instead: Johnson.

Educated and talented, there’s a hunger burning in the young Adonis that his steady office job, where he was recently promoted, can’t quench. He makes clandestine trips to Mexico to box in any ring he can, putting his self-taught skills to test. Risking it all, he packs his things and, to the anguish of Mary Anne, moves to the dirty streets of Philadelphia to make a name for himself – his own name – in legit boxing. For this, he turns to the one person who might understand what he’s going through more than anyone else: Rocky Balboa.

In Philly he meets a talented young musician, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who fills much of the emotional space for Adonis much as Adrian did for Rocky. Bianca isn’t the timid flower that Adrian started out as, but she’s battling her own private struggles with hearing loss.

Rocky, last seen in the underrated Rocky Balboa, continues working at the restaurant named for his beloved Adrian, whom cancer took some years back. Sadly, we learn another familiar face, Paulie (Burt Young), is also gone, the surly old drunk buried alongside his sister in the same graveyard. Alone in the world (his only son having left for Vancouver), Rocky forms a new family with Adonis and Bianca, after some gentle pushing from a persistent Adonis, who affectionately calls his new trainer Unc’.

Rocky notices a physical resemblance. But Adonis is brash and arrogant, with more of his father’s swagger than even he realizes. Beneath the bravado lay a young man troubled with a legacy he never asked for, yet never really casts aside; why else seek out his late father’s once-rival, if not to recapture some semblance and second-hand knowledge of what might have been?

Things take an unexpected turn when Rocky becomes sick, forcing a new dimension into what might have become a saccharine throwaway in a less masculine franchise. The world may be a mean, nasty place but none of that stops our heroes from moving forward, battling demons both in and outside the ring, one inspirational montage at a time.

This being a Rocky film, the only thing missing is an opponent worthy of the thrill of the fight, someone to equal the lead’s charisma. This role now falls to “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (real boxer Tony Bellew), whose magnificently mustached manager Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish) knows a solid-gold opportunity when he sees it, much like Apollo did in the original film. Owing to some questionable behavior, Conlan is facing a lengthy prison term, and after prematurely taking down what would have been his final opponent, desperately needs the marquee value of Creed’s name to bring in the crowds – and a huge payday – to Liverpool to support his family.

Yes, even the most passionate Rocky apologist will recognize this is almost a beat-for-beat reconstruction of the original, but so what? The power of cinema is that it’s a living medium, a synergistic collective capturing real people during a time and place, and people age. It’s worth noting that most of Creed’s young talent either weren’t born yet or still toddlers when this film’s real inspiration, Rocky IV, was released thirty years ago (Tessa Thompson, at 32, is the relative elder).

In this way, the Rocky franchise has been one of the most audacious, if accidental, experiments in film history. We’ve watched Rocky (Stallone) grow from a young scrapper to become the very man whose help he originally sought out, Mickey (Meredith), all onscreen in a lifetime of flashes and motion. Serendipitously, Stallone is now 69, the same age Meredith was when he played Mickey Goldmill in the original film.

An early scene showing Adonis shadow boxing alongside a projected image of his father and Rocky is both instructive and bittersweet; just like him, most have grown up only watching these characters onscreen, sharing in their cinematic trials and tribulations from afar. But always from the outside.

Given the chance to jump in and participate, like Adonis, Coogler and Covington would be foolish not to. They clearly love these characters and their cinematic importance, employing every trick to both honor the legacy of the franchise while guiding its much needed evolution. Iconic Rocky imagery and symbolism is spread throughout, reconstituting everything from turtles to windows locations and shorts. Stallone cedes everything, screenwriting, directing, even the franchise itself, to his hungry young protegees; this is the first film in the franchise he didn’t write (though I’d bet he had a hand in the dialogue). It’s also the first where he keeps his shirt on throughout, but that’s a different analysis…

Coogler, whose 2013 film Fruitvale Station showcased a promising new talent, goes above and  beyond here; Creed heralds him a major talent to be reckoned with. Some might scratch their heads, wondering why such a promising indie director would want to associate himself with popcorn fluff like a Rocky film. That’s easy: few films offer the simultaneous promise of muscular heroism and unfettered optimism as Rocky, and the thrill of the challenge itself; making really good popcorn is harder than it looks.

He’s the best director to ever helm a Rocky movie, period. With cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler), he films the city of Philadelphia much like the original film did, warts and all, lingering on chipped paint and dirty alleys just long enough to make impact. The rhythm and pulse of the streets is alive here, recalling how vital ‘The City of Brotherly Love’ is to these stories and characters.

And the fights? My goodness – Coogler displays a penchant for long tracking shots that would make Alejandro Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón jealous. Adonis’ initial fight feels like a continuous take, following him from backroom to knockout in every sense of the word. The epic finale, a mix of HBO hyper-realism and cinematic close-ups, saturates the match in nightmarish hues and old-school camera work that recalls the sheer determinism of previous films. I won’t spoil the conclusion here, but it fits within the context of everything that’s come before.

Even Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack updates, while respecting, Bill Conti’s original use of symphonic crescendos and thrillingly manipulative cues to bring us to our feet, cheering in all the right places. Like the underlying tale of David vs. Goliath, it’s entirely familiar, yet strangely new and welcome.

Together, Adonis and Rocky share an onscreen charisma that smolders and inspires, letting us share in their new adventure all over again. Creed reunites Coogler with Fruitvale Station’s Michael B. Jordan, an actor who’s also never been better than a performance that’s equal parts bravado and physical. He’s every bit Apollo’s son, eager to cast aside both the wealth and legacy thrust upon him by a man who died before he was even born. The Rocky here is grayed, physically aged, yet all the wiser for having lived through the school of hard-knocks he’s now teaching.

For Stallone, whose 1976 film roles earned him both Oscar nominations for screenwriting and acting (he lost both), adding an actual ‘acting’ win for his seventh turn at the character would be something. This is, without a doubt, the best onscreen performance Sly has ever given.

There will be those who, inevitably, misread Creed as a post-racial recasting of one of cinema’s most endurable icons, blinded by a prism of cultural diversity that never existed. Stallone and his new franchise bearers are smarter than this, knowing all too well their now shared mythology has always been about contrition, sacrifice and, when needed, a little silliness (no robots here, thankfully). Mickey once famously told Rock: “You’re gonna eat lightnin’ and you’re gonna crap thunder!” In Creed, Adonis just craps, and it’s hilarious.

In spite of our best efforts, the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, and neither are blockbuster films. As a Rocky film, Creed is one of the best, and certainly the best made since the 1976 original. Whether it heralds an entirely new franchise of its own, much like its titular hero, will be up to the cinema gods if they favor such things. But for those who’ve watched and loved them all, since the beginning, the Rocky saga has come full circle, safely in the hands of new-generation who desperately need its message of hope and inspiration.