‘Creed’ Packs One Hell of a Punch

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With five sequels of wildly varying quality, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how great the original Rocky really is. The uplifting tale of an unknown Philadelphia boxer given a chance against the champ, it’s the quintessential underdog story, one that dabbles and dodges clichés as well as inventing some of its own. The 1976 original took home the Oscar for Best Picture, beating out other timeless classics like Network and Taxi Driver.

The final sequel for Rocky, 2006’s Rocky Balboa, offered a nice sense of closure for the character, one last fight for the eternal underdog. It was perhaps the finest of all the sequels. Now, nearly a decade after Rocky’s last fight, Rocky Balboa is back on the screen, but this time he’s training the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s former nemesis turned best friend who was tragically killed in the ring during Rocky IV. Simply titled Creed, this spinoff is similar to the 1976 classic; it’s an underdog tale that takes on the shape of Rocky’s ascent, sticking to the formula of the previous films while carving out a personality of its own.

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordon) never knew his father Apollo Creed. Following the death of his mother, the illegitimate son of the former boxing champion is in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention facilities before Apollo’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) takes him in. Though he’s living in relative comfort, Adonis has the fire of a fighter in his heart, taking his free time to fight in dive bars in Tijuana. When the gym that his father trained out refuses to train him, Adonis moves to Philadelphia to the dismay of his adopted mother and seeks the guidance of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). At first, Rocky is reluctant to train the young pugilist. Before long, Rocky begins training the young boxer and as he gets further settled into Philadelphia he strikes up a relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), his neighbor and an aspiring musician. But Adonis and Rocky hide the young boxer’s relationship to his father – Adonis wants to carve out his own legacy free from the shadow of a patriarch that is great in stature yet unknown to his son. After winning his first big fight, Adonis’ heritage is revealed and soon the representatives for “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) come knocking with an offer for a big time fight. However, Rocky soon learns that he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Both trainer and trainee must now face the greatest fight of their lives.

For those well-versed in the Rocky films will pick up a number of nods to the previous films. Amazingly, the script co-written by director Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington doesn’t rely simply on nostalgia to make Creed work. The parallels between Creed and Rocky are tangible, but they create Adonis as a character that stands on his own with his own set of strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the nostalgic elements would feel weaker if there wasn’t a tangible chemistry between Stallone and Jordan. Even some of the musical score by Ludwig Göransson invokes memories of the original score by Bill Conti, but Creed only briefly employs the iconic horns of “Gonna Fly Now.” When those first few notes hit, the film has entirely earned the moment.

The leading performance from Michael B. Jordan is simply wonderful, capturing the anger, ambition, sadness, and humor of a multi-faceted character. All of these qualities were sorely wasted in this summer’s Fantastic Four. Not only does Jordan share chemistry with the elder Stallone, but he plays wonderfully off of Tessa Thompson’s performance as Bianca. Between her role in this film, Selma, and Dear White People, Thompson is earning a reputation as an actress that commands attention. Playing Rocky Balboa for the seventh time, Stallone gives his best performance since the last go-round in ’06. There’s still that sadness and loneliness of man who knows his best years are behind, but finds a new lease on life by taking on the role of Mick, sometimes even lifting lines and training techniques from the iconic Burgess Meredith character.

The filmmaking skills displayed by Ryan Coogler are what really lend Creed much of its power. In the Adonis’ first big fight, the camera is the ring with the two fighters, dancing with each fighter as they circle the ring. When it comes to the moments of boxing, Coogler’s direction is the best presentation of boxing since the legendary Raging Bull. When Coogler isn’t dazzling audiences with compelling visceral action, he’s filling Creed with a strong emotional punch. The emotion of Creed isn’t simply rooted in presenting an iconic character frail and aging, it’s just as much about young Adonis coming into his own and dealing with his own insecurities and fiery rage.

No other city in the world has defined themselves by a fiction character as Philadelphia has with Rocky Balboa. “Gonna Fly Now” plays before Eagles games. There’s a plaque in front of Pat’s King of Steaks that marks the very spot where Rocky ate a cheesesteak in the first film. (Pat’s offers inferior cheesesteaks aided only by the Rocky mystique.) Tourists race up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, always stopping just shy of actually entering one of the finest art collections in America in order to descend the steps and have their picture taken next to a statue of Stallone. The sequels diminished that underdog spirit that connected Rocky to the city of Philadelphia – the Rocky statue ping-ponged from the Museum of Art to the Spectrum, a sports and concert arena, before being placed off to the side of the museum – before Rocky Balboa brought back that spirit. With Creed there’s a new underdog spirit that should capture the hearts of Philadelphians and the country as a whole. The original was a product of its time with universal themes that we can all connect to. Creed is the rightful and undisputed heir to that legacy. It packs one hell of a punch.

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