A film review by Craig J. Koban December 8, 2015

RANK: 17


2015, PG-13, 132 mins.


Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed  /  Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa  /  Graham McTavish as Tommy Holiday  /  Tessa Thompson as Bianca  /  Phylicia Rashād as Mary Anne Creed  /  Hans Marrero as Flores  /  Tony Bellew as 'Pretty' Ricky Conlan  /  Brian Anthony Wilson as James  /  Ritchie Coster as Pete Sporino  /  Jacob 'Stitch' Duran as Stitch  /  Malik Bazille as Amir  /  Wood Harris as Tony 'Little Duke' Burton  /  Gabe Rosado as Leo 'The Lion' Sporino

Directed by Ryan Coogler  /  Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington 

Rather improbably, CREED - much like a certain boxer from Philadelphia - is a film that utterly defies the odds.  It might be the best entry in the iconic ROCKY series since…well…the original 1976 Oscar nominated film that made Sylvester Stallone and The Italian Stallion household names.  

Mirroring the introductory franchise chapter in most thematic and story respects, CREED (the seventh film - a sort of sequel, sort of spin-off - in this pugilist saga) wisely understands that the Rocky Balboa cinematic universe is not really about boxing at all, something that far too many of the lackluster sequels forgot.  No, this franchise is ostensibly about the internal struggles of low self-confidence and moving past impossible obstacles to prove to yourself and those around you of your inherent worthiness.  CREED may obviously echo many of the core story elements of ROCKY and utilizes many of its inherent formulas, but the manner that this film uses them and uses them well is its chief asset.  The fact that a film so late in a series can somehow feel fresh and invigorating is frankly astonishing. 

But CREED does simmer with the same level of rousing underdog intensity that the very first ROCKY picture had.  It should be noted that the film marks the very first time that a ROCKY film was neither written nor directed by Stallone himself.  For this round (pun unintended) writer/director Ryan Coogler (whom previously made on the best films of 2013 in FRUITVALE STATION) is at the helm and the infusion of new blood is precisely what this aging franchise needs.  While paying the utmost respect to the classic ROCKY film cannon while simultaneously taking the series in new directions for modern consumption, Coogler fashions a wonderfully heartfelt ode to Stallone’s greatest film character that also serves as a bold introduction to a new lead persona that just may spawn his own series of movies.  There’s a reason that this movie is called CREED - Rocky still casts an omnipotent shadow over the proceedings, but there’s a definitive sense of the series passing on the torch to a newcomer. 



That newcomer, of course, is Creed himself, a name that’s overtly familiar to anyone that’s even vaguely familiar with ROCKY lore.  Apollo Creed was Rocky’s greatest squared-circle adversary turned loyal friend, but he (SPOILER ALERT) died in the ring in 1985's ROCKY IV.  CREED is about his offspring Adonis, a child that would never know his famous father, seeing as he was the product of a secret extramarital affair and died before he was born.  Adonis would go on to live a troubled life in the foster care system, that is until the boxing legend’s wife Anne (Phylicia Rashad) rescued the lad to help him make something of the life he had ahead of him.  Flashfoward to the present and Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) appears to be a college educated man with a solid 9 to 5 job.  There’s one problem, though: he hates his white-collar existence with a passion.  He's also a chip off of his daddy's old block and wants to be a fighter. 

When not working, Adonis fights low-paying bouts in Mexico to hone his fighting skills (and to ensure that his identity as Apollo’s son is kept under wraps).  Realizing that he needs better tutelage to become a fighter that would stand far apart from his legendary father, Adonis heads to Philadelphia to seek out Rocky (Stallone), who’s now completely alone in the world (both his wife Adrian and brother-in-law Paulie have passed on and his son Robert has moved to Canada).  Initially, Rocky steadfastly, but politely refuses to train Adonis, seeing as his time in the sport has long since passed him.  Yet, Adonis breaks down Rocky’s guard and the aging boxing legend decides to train his new young protégé for an upcoming bout with English champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellow) who – like Apollo Creed before him – wants to give a young unknown up-and-comer a chance of a lifetime.  While Adonis learns the ropes from his new mentor, he develops an attraction to an attractive neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson) that’s a struggling singer/songwriter. 

Nothing in CREED breaks the ROCKY mold.  All of the obligatory series elements that we are all familiar with are here: The down-on-his-luck boxer, the reluctant mentor, the woman that becomes an emotional anchor for the fighter, the training montages, the climatic big fight against an insurmountable opponent that will allow the hero to finally claim some semblance of self-respect.  CREED is, if anything, slavish to the manipulative ROCKY conventions of old.  Yet, Coogler wisely understands that the mold is one that’s ripe for usage and re-interpretation under a new character focal point.  All of the themes that made ROCKY such a rewarding and inviting film 40 years ago for viewers appear in CREED – love, honor, loyalty, being true to yourself – but Coogler is smarter than to go for outright mimicry.  His film is a love letter to ROCKY mythology and lore, but it uses it as a template to tell a new story set within it.  It respects the past films while confidently forging on ahead with its own narrative. 

Coogler is also assured enough to understand that the first ROCKY film was at its strongest when it came to character dynamics and not in-ring action and mayhem.  Like the relationship between Rocky and Mickey, CREED cements itself in the Adonis/Rocky partnership as one of mutual appreciation and respect.  Their union becomes one of a surrogate father/son relationship: Adonis seeks out Rocky not only as a trainer, but as a father figures that he never had growing up.  Rocky eventually warms over to Adonis, seeing as his deceased friend’s child becomes a new son to him in his life when his own offspring has long since departed and left him.  Part of the inherent sadness of CREED is how broken down by life the once emotionally and physically powerful Rocky has become.  He was once a Herculean figure in this series that fought not only for his livelihood, but also for his family's overall well being.  Now, and rather heartbreakingly, Rocky has no family.  He’s old, sick, broken down, and has no one to fight for.   CREED may be Adonis’ story of redemption, but it’s also a chronicle of Rocky’s struggles with relevance as well. 

Stallone has played Rocky so many times at so many stages of his career that we often overlook how damn good he is in the role.  Rather wisely, Stallone has passed on the ROCKY creative torch to Coogler, which consequently allows him to focus more on the performance aspects of CREED.  This version of Rocky, as mentioned, is in stark contrast to nearly every other past iteration of the character, and Stallone subtly reveals that he still has tricks up his sleeve to make Rocky a continued character of interest.  The rundown Rocky here is a tender and emotional one, and Stallone is as good as he’s ever been in the role for nailing the nuances of a man whose life is slowly winding down to an inevitable and somewhat depressing end.  He’s paired so remarkably well with Michael B. Jordan (he previously gave an Oscar worthy turn working with Coogler in FRUITVALE STATION) and he manages to portray Creed not as a carbon copy of his father, but rather as a confident, yet anxiety plagued young man that desperately tries to forge a singular identity.  Jordan makes his Creed a figure of snarling intensity and one of wounded, lifelong vulnerability, which only makes CREED feel all the more dramatically urgent and enthralling.  

Of course, CREED has its share of boxing sequences, and Coogler displays what a singular filmmaker maestro he is at trying to visually create a sense of newfound dynamism in sequences that have literally been done to death in countless films beforehand.  A mid-film boxing match – featuring an early, yet crucial fight between Creed and another young boxer – is handled with what appears to be one long skillfully orchestrated take that allows for the fight to have a startling “you are there” immediacy.  The final bout in the film between Creed and Conlan goes for a less flashy approach, but Coogler deserves serious props for framing the blood spewing, bone crunching fisticuffs with a fluid editorial clarity.  Lesser filmmakers these days would have chopped up such sequences into shaky-cam, headache inducing bursts of action, but Coogler is an inordinately shrewd director to know that generating tension doesn’t require eye-training visual gimmicks.  It's been a long time since boxing sequences in a movie have felt as robustly alive as they do here.   

I thought that 2006’s better than expected ROCKY BALBOA was an effective and touching swan song for the title character.  The astounding thing about CREED is that it still manages to provide for a completely worthy and highly involving continuation of what should have been a tired and dead series.  Coogler has brought the Rocky Balboa saga to the next logical narrative beat and in the process has dexterously crafted arguably the finest entry in this franchise since the original film.  There’s a moment in CREED where Adonis and Rocky journey up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum, a trip that the latter did time and time again during his boxing career.  Withered, blue faced, trembling, and out of breath, Rocky can barely make it up, but his protégée encourages him to push forward, find whatever he’s got left in the tank, and slowly make it to the top.  The scene is a perfect encapsulation of CREED as a whole: It has no business being as good as it is, but somehow…someway…it audaciously defies odds and perseveres to emerge at the upper echelon of ROCKY films.  

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