Creed (2015)

When I first heard that Hollywood intended to make a spin-off movie from the Rocky franchise, to say that I was skeptical is an understatement.  Most of the time, spin-offs and reboots are garbage and can be easily dismissed.  Hollywood is constantly recycling its stories, trading off the successes of pre-established names and franchises to make money.  A lot of studios rely on the big summer tentpoles because they are a sure thing, even as the product tends to become more and more watered down with each sequel.  It seems like original content is seen by fewer and fewer eyes each year.  Being able to find a fresh take on an established Hollywood property is rare.  Most of these are uninspired and shameless money grabs.  But in the sea of dreck there are the occasional gems.  These gems happen when the right studio gets the right director, with the right take, with the right actors.  Ryan Coogler’s Creed is that rare gem, telling a fresh, inspiring, and exciting story in the world of Rocky Balboa about the son of Apollo Creed.

Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, snatched out of a juvenile detention center as a young boy by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad).  As a grown man, he feels stuck in an office job, because fighting is in his blood, and he spends his weekends fighting in Tijuana, Mexico.  He’s unable to find someone willing to train him in L.A., with everyone at his father’s old gym knowing who he is, so he leaves for Philly and seeks out Rocky (Sly Stallone) to train him.  Initially reluctant to train him, they nonetheless strike up a relationship, and Donnie eventually wins him over to train him.  He also meets and develops a relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a gifted musician who is his downstairs neighbor.  Under Rocky’s training, Donnie gets some breaks he couldn’t get in L.A., and is able to train under the radar with the last name Johnson.  When his secret gets out, though, the top dog in the boxing world, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) comes calling for a blockbuster event.

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Director Coogler and actor Jordan collaborated together on 2013’s indie critical darling Fruitvale Station.   Creed is the perfect chance for each to take a big step forward into the studio system.  Both of them are rising stars in the industry.  Jordan is more well-known, having been on The Wire and Friday Night Lights, but he’s also had some poor experiences with studio films.  Chronicle was a surprise hit, but That Awkward Moment and Fantastic Four were duds.  They’re both a breath of fresh air here, taking the franchise in what turns out to be an exciting new direction.

As much love as I have for Rocky III and Rocky IV, both of those films are pretty formulaic, and it’s a formula that has been largely abandoned in service of telling an actual story, not just setting the protagonist up against a seemingly insurmountable opponent.  It follows the formula of Rocky and Rocky Balboa more than any of the other Rocky movies.  Donnie’s story surprisingly mirrors the story of Rocky in the original film, while Rocky’s story here continues the surprisingly poignancy and, dare I say, gravitas that was in Rocky Balboa.  Stallone gives a shockingly good performance here.  There has been some talk about a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance here.  I don’t think he would win, but I also don’t think talk of a nomination is hyperbole either.

The film has a lot going for it.  Donnie, Rocky, and Bianca are the three main characters here, and each of them is involved in their own personal fights.  It’s a credit to the film that it all doesn’t just revolve around Donnie wanting to become a boxer.  All three characters have stakes in their own stories.  They’re fully realized characters.  Even “Pretty” Ricky is given a backstory that, while maybe a little flimsy, at least explains why the champ would give the son of Apollo Creed a match when he’s so inexperienced.  It’s also helpful that Jordan and Stallone have a great rapport with one another on screen and Jordan and Thompson have great chemistry together.  Oh yeah, and the boxing scenes are outstanding too.

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There’s a great balance between nostalgia tying back into the previous films (catching the chicken, running the streets of Philly, “Women weaken legs!”), some levity found in the generational gap between Donnie and Rocky (even a joke about “the cloud” actually sort of works), and the film striking its own path.  Based on how we are introduced to Donnie, fighting in a youth correction facility with a bigger, older kid, it could have been easy to make Donnie into a stereotypical black youth with a troubled upbringing.  Thankfully, Coogler is too good for that.

Instead, the film chooses a more challenging path by having Donnie be a young man who was saved from a troubled youth, raised in an environment of means, who becomes a good, well-adjusted person and why that person would want to fight when they don’t have to in the eyes of others.  Nearly everyone around him questions the fight he has in him, thinking he has nothing to prove because of his background.  But he constantly feels he has to prove himself, partly because he doesn’t want to let down the Creed name, a surname he struggles with because of a complicated relationship to a father he never knew.  Throughout the whole film, Donnie’s decision to pursue a life in the ring is questioned by those around him and a clear answer is never given until a quiet moment between he and Rocky in the big fight, revealing what Donnie feels he has to prove.  It’s an answer that resonates and rings true and the poignancy of the moment is the best punch the movie lands at the exact right moment.

Creed is the rare spin-off/continuation of an existing franchise that finds new ground and has a compelling story to tell.  That is not a surprise from Coogler and Jordan, two people who hopefully will be catapulted to even bigger and better things.  It’s also entirely possible that this is not a one-off and that if the film does find an audience it could result in some sequels of its own.  Everyone involved gives a good performance, the production quality is top notch, and the story really pulls you in and has you rooting for these characters, even before the familiar notes of a the Rocky score kick in during the training montage.

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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