Silver Screen: Creed ****1/2
It’s easy to forget how great Rocky is.
The 1976 classic gradually got lost in the sequel-mania of the 1980s, for which star Sylvester Stallone might well be the poster boy. In 1985 he released two franchise installments, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Both were garish embellishments of gritty, hard-hitting originals. They’re both a great deal of fun, but each of them— especially Rocky IV— represented a transformation of the actor from badass everyman to sentient cartoon character.
Fruitvale Station writer/director Ryan Coogler hasn’t forgotten. Unlike so many of the recent wave of strained reboots and rehashes, including Stallone’s own uneven attempts to revamp both Rocky and Rambo, Creed seems infused with the spirit of the original. Not the guy duking it out with Mr. T or singlehandedly fighting against Russia, but that brokedown Philly mook who kept fighting because he was the only one who didn’t realize he didn’t stand a chance.
The most interesting relationship in the Rocky films wasn’t between the Italian Stallion and his wallflower girlfriend Adrian, it was between him and Carl Weathers’s Apollo Creed, a Muhammad Ali surrogate who transformed from dismissive opponent to trainer and brother-in-arms.
The film Creed is predicated on a savvy premise that taps into that intriguing partnership. In Coogler’s neo-revisionist sequel, Apollo had a son of out wedlock, born after the deadly bout with Ivan Drago. That son, young Adonis, was raised in foster care until the age of eight, when Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) took him in and raised him as her own.
And here Coogler brilliantly flips the script. Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) learned tough lessons in childhood but then lived a life of privilege in the Creeds’ opulent manor. When first we meet him as an adult, he’s decked out in a collared shirt and khakis, working at a tony financial firm. But despite his recent promotion, he’s plagued with a dissatisfaction that drives him to make trips to Mexico, where he fights on the amateur circuit under his birth mother’s name as Adonis Johnson. He’s an impossible contradiction: the overprivileged underdog.
Mother Creed forbids her adopted son to enter the sport that killed his father, but like a certain Italian lunkhead before him, the ambition chafing at Adonis is too much. He quits the financial firm and leaves the mansion for Philadelphia to seek out the one man who might agree to train him. Yep, that guy.
Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is content to live out the rest of his days as a restaurateur and fading neighborhood legend. He’s nearing the same age as his old cornerman Mickey back in 1976. Boxing is a thing of his past. Of course, he can’t say no to the persistent Adonis, who calls him uncle and reveres him not as a boxing icon but a lost member of his fragmented family.
What most fans remember about the original Rocky isn’t the actual climactic bout itself, but the training montage set to that rousing theme music. That’s because Rocky was never so much about the fight as the preparation itself, and the determination to persevere in the face of almost certain defeat.
Coogler brings that same fighting spirit to his film, which stands tall as the best of the Rocky sequels. Rather than shy away from the formula that dominated the earlier films, he sinks into it and makes it his own. There’s a montage and a theme, a final fight and a special girl, but he invigorates the clichés with fresh ideas, genuine emotions, and ferocious enthusiasm for the material.
Actual boxing was never the Rocky movies’ strong suit. The choreography gets a little better as the sequels progress, but it’s still implausible pugilism throughout. In Creed, however, the fighting looks painfully real. Coogler captures the action in long, breathless takes that press the camera to the edge of the ropes like a bloodthirsty voyeur.
Dazzling brutality aside, relationships form the core of the movie. Adonis’s Adrian is Bianca (Tessa Thompson), but she’s no castoff wallflower. She’s an accomplished musician who succeeds despite a degenerative ear condition that will eventually render her deaf. Ultimately, she still functions in the movie as Adonis’s motivation and support, but Coogler and cowriter Aaron Covington at least endeavor to give her some independence.
Jordan and Stallone have a terrific rapport. Their cross-generational bonding will choke you up and make you want to call your dad as surely as overhearing “Cat’s in the Cradle” on an elevator’s speaker system. Their interactions are heartfelt and genuine. Stallone hasn’t been this good in ages. Coogler remembers the sweet simpleton from 1976 and recasts him here as wiser, wearier, but still fumbling his way toward goodness. He makes perfect use of Stallone’s graying bulk and mush-mouthed speech. This is deeply affecting stuff.
It goes without saying that Jordan is a star shining brighter every day. He stood out among one of the best TV casts of all time in his single season of The Wire and has only gotten better in subsequent work in Friday Night Lights and Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. He’s the rightful heir to the throne, Apollo’s and Rocky’s. Even his seriously intimidating bulk can’t mask his soulfulness, which burns in his eyes and defines itself in the lines of his clenched jaw.
You’ll root hard for Creed, and for Rocky. You’ll thrill at the tease of that theme, the fighting fury written all over Jordan’s face. You’ll even be forgiven for cheering out loud in the theater— by me, anyway. I couldn’t hold back a hoot or two. It’s truly inspiring stuff.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.