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CREED (2015) review

November 24, 2015

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written by: Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington
produced by: Robert Chartoff, William Chartoff, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King-Templeton, Irwin Winkler & David Winkler
directed by: Ryan Coogler
rated: PG-13 (for violence, language and some sensuality)
runtime: 133 min.
U.S. release date: November 25, 2015  

 

“Creed” may be the fitting farewell to the “Rocky” franchise that I thought 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” was. That’s surprising to me, since I thought that sixth film was a fine coda to an iconic character of American cinema. I emphasize “may” because there could be more movies after this for all I know. I never would’ve thought there would be a spinoff movie that would essentially open up a Rocky Universe. Now, there’s really no need for any further expansions, because from start to finish “Creed” is a rousing and touching picture. When it was announced that there was going to be a movie called “Creed”, which would find Rocky training the son of his former opponent (and eventual close friend) Apollo Creed, I found it be kind of a pathetic and unnecessary choice. I was wrong.

“Creed” starts off years ago at a Los Angeles juvenile center, where we meet preteen Adonis Johnson, a boy who’s bounced around foster homes. He’s prone to fighting with fierce expressions that mask emotional wounds. He is visited by Mary Anne (a wonderful Phylicia Rashad) who informs him that his father was her husband and asks him to come live with her. The boy is a Creed. The son of her late husband, boxing champ, Apollo Creed, who died in the ring (see “Rocky IV”) before Adonis was born. Without knowing who his father was, he has inherently taken up fighting as an instinctive first response.

Twelve years later, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) – or Donny, as he prefers – can be found picking up underground fights in Tijuana and making it back to L.A. twelve hours later for his white-collar office job. This tells us where the character’s passion lies. He grew up financially secure, living with Mary Anne, whom he considers to be his mother, in a mansion made possible by Apollo’s career. There is obvious resentment toward his father for dying before his birth, but Donny can be seen shadow-boxing to old footage of his father’s fights with Rocky – seemingly following the Italian Stallion’s moves, instead of his father’s. He’s under his father’s shadow, yet still trying to find himself – is he Donny Johnson or Adonis Creed? He may not know how, but he has to follow his instinct and pursue boxing.

For anyone who sits in the matrix of a desk job, the scene where we see a discontent Donny sitting at his desk in a shirt and tie (clearly out of place and without passion), will hit home. After being turned away from his father’s gym, run by Apollo’s legitimate son, Donny makes up his mind. Much to the chagrin of his mother, he quits his promising yet unfulfilling job and heads to Philadelphia, hoping to be trained by Rocky and make a name for himself.

It’s important to note that this is a compelling story even before the titular character heads to the east coast. It’s confidently directed and powerfully acted – with Jordan giving his best performance to date – and that’s just the first twenty or so minutes. The audience at the screening I attended were enraptured, myself included. Like the title character (and Rocky’s entire life on-screen), “Creed” is nothing to scoff at.

 

 

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When he arrives in Philly, Donny wastes no time heading over to “Adrian’s”, the Italian restaurant (see “Rocky Balboa”) owned and run by Rocky, in honor of his beloved late wife. Donny impresses Rocky with his knowledge of his fights with Apollo, including a rumored secret fight that no one knew about. It doesn’t take long for Rocky to figure out the kid is Apollo’s illegitimate son and when Donny asks him to be his trainer, the reluctant former boxer says he’s not interested, but points him toward his old gym.

During this time, we see Donny getting to know Bianca (Tessa Thompson, “Dear White People”), his neighbor in the apartment below his and two form a tentatively paced romance. She’s a burgeoning singer/songwriter, making a name for herself and trying to produce as much music as possible before her progressive hearing loss takes over completely. The two become an inspiration and support for each other, capturing the same authenticity of the courtship we saw between Adrian and Rocky.

Eventually, Donny, who affectionately calls Rocky “Unc”, breaks  him and the old palooka agrees to train him, this makes the gym’s current trainer, who was hoping to have his son trained by Rocky, resentful. Donny doesn’t just undergo physical training, he also receives some valuable outside-the-ring training which comes in handy with his anger issues, especially when locals him “Baby Creed”, once his lineage is leaked.

That news lights up the boxing world and lines up Adonis “Hollywood” Creed for a big-ticket fight against heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by former Amateur Boxing Association of England heavyweight champ Tony Bellew), orchestrated by his manager, Jimmy Holiday (Graham McTavishRambo“), a smarmy bloke who’d like to see his fighter go out with an easy win before he does time for a gun charge. But both Donny and Rocky don’t plan on making anything easy for Conlan.

 

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The main relationship in “Creed” and the heart of the movie can be found in what we see develop between Donny and Rocky. They bond during revealing conversations and requisite training montages – which feel familiar yet welcome with strokes of nostalgia that make you smile instead of groan – like when Rocky has Donny chase chickens around a yard and when we see a lone Donny in grey sweats run through the streets of Philly while young African-American boys riding motorbikes cheer him on. That’s one of many scenes that are appropriately updated to offer a new generation a timely role model.

In my opinion, it’s a more revealing and personal mentorship than Rocky had with Mickey (played by the late Burgess Meredith in the first three movies), especially once Rocky is hit with his own opponent to fight. I won’t go into that plot development any further, except to say that the material Stallone has given could easily earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. I’m not kidding and I won’t be the only one to suggest it.

For decades moviegoers and critics have made fun of Stallone and his macho on-screen personas. People forget he can act and given the right material and director, we can be reminded of his great potential. That’s what we have here. The Rocky he plays here is humbled by life. After all his wins and losses – there’s a poignant scene at Paulie and Adrian’s tombstones, where he sits and reads the newspaper to both of them after offerings are placed, Crown Royal and flowers (respectively), at their graves – Stallone plays a lonely local celebrity who has a lot to offer his friend’s angry son. The chemistry between Stallone and Jordan is superb, providing well-times humorous bits with tear-jerking endearing moments.

Yes, I definitely had a few ugly cries of my own watching “Creed” and you may too. Much of that has to do with what I brought to the movie and how much these “Rocky” movies mean to me (except for “Rocky V”, of course) – yes, even the third and fourth movies. All I can say is I grew up watching Stallone as Rocky with my dad and my uncle and revisiting this character yet again has meaning. I remember which theater I saw at “Rocky IV” with my dad as much as I recall watching my uncle hit a punching bag in my grandfather’s basement. Rocky isn’t a joke to me as he has been to so many, he’s like family. Seeing where the Italian Stallion is now reminded me of that and conjured up some emotions that caught me off guard.

 

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Since there’s been hundreds of boxing movies, it’s hard to find a film that does anything original, but Coogler and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti skillfully craft their own style. One fight is one long take that will leave you in awe and the final bout is bloody, rough and tiring, with quick editing and swirling camera moves that immerse in the ring. Like many of the previous movies in the series and some of the best sports movies, “Creed” isn’t just about the sweet science. The movie’s screenplay gives us grounded characters we can connect with, relate to and cheer on. It never gets too schmaltzy and finds humor yet never cheeses it up, while referring to certain events from the previous movies without coming across like blatant catch-up for the audience.  This is crowd-pleasing in the best possible sense.

Director Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with newcomer Aaron Covington, reunites with his “Fruitvale Station” actor Michael B. Jordan. That film put both of them on the map, but “Creed”, which will be have a much wider audience will elevate the duo to breakout status. Most of all, Coogler (who has haggled Stallone for years to do this project) shows an obvious passion for the story and its characters. He knows these characters connect with us and he’s fortunate to get two of the best performances of the year out of Jordan and Stallone. Thank you.

 

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RATING: ****

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2015 11:48 am

    Good review. A heartfelt and emotional movie that goes beyond its conventions. Thankfully.

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