Writer-director Ryan Coogler confirms every bit of promise that he displayed in his 2013 debut “Fruitvale Station,” which also starred Michael B. Jordan. “Creed” is a filmmaker’s film and, at the same time, a well crafted everyman story and audience pleaser. Where most filmmakers are scrambling to nail just one, Coogler nails two.
In the lead, Coogler has provided Jordan with yet another notch in his belt, clearly positioning him for stardom. In a never-say-die stance is the always surprising Sylvester Stallone who is appearing in the first “Rocky” franchise film that he didn’t write. As an actor, Stallone is given and takes the opportunity to bring a depth to the iconic Rocky. The word “sublime” comes to mind.
Despite some heavyweight films opening this week, “Creed” should easily show its strength at the box office. This isn’t a “Rocky” spin-off despite “Creed” being the seventh installment in the franchise, but it does deliver the heat punch-for-punch and pathos-for-pathos.
Rewind: “Creed” begins with an explosive flashback showcasing Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) as an adolescent in a Los Angeles juvenile detention center, busted for fighting in what appears to be a regular and unwelcome occurrence—a typical behavior for an orphan who’s been bounced from one institution to another. Then he receives an unexpected visit from “the” Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who tells him that he’s the illegitimate son of her late husband, former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.
Cut to present day and the twentysomething Adonis, aka Donnie, is still living with Mary Anne in a wealthy widow-style home, made possible by the legend Creed. The fight never left Adonis, and he makes weak attempts to work a 9-to-5 white-collar job while sneaking into Tijuana, Mexico, for black market weekend prize fights. His talent as a boxer is evident, along with a weakness his gloves can’t fix. He leaves for Philadelphia, completely against his surrogate mother’s wishes, to train with the one man who knew his father’s skills the best: professional nemesis-turned-friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone).
When we find Rocky he’s still tending to his restaurant and making regular visits to his late wife Adrian’s grave. Naturally, it takes Rocky some time to be convinced to get back in the game as a trainer, but he soon relents and the two start to develop a bond.
On the personal side, Adonis connects with his downstairs neighbor, an avant-garde musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and despite her progressive hearing lost, they strike up a romance.
It’s hard to keep the truth around his parentage under wraps, and after a few local victories, the leak is seized upon as an opportunity for British light-heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew) to create a fight and stop a potentially career-ending prison sentence.
Meanwhile, Rocky confronts a serious health battle of his own, and his trainer-fighter relationship with Adonis is turned on its head.
The obvious chip that Adonis bears on his well-chiseled shoulders, presumably from his group home past, growing up without a father and his treatment as a sort of legacy admission into the boxing world, gives the Jordan rich material to craft a character who is easy to embrace despite his rather hot temper.
Now, to the look. Remember, this is a “Rocky” movie, so the excellent training montages are plentiful and Jordan is pure eye candy.
The work of director of photography Maryse Alberti as well as “Fruitvale Station” editors Michael P. Shawver and Claudia Castello deliver a near perfect film technically. In one climatic battle, the virtuosic editing is highlighted with one bold, bloody and beautiful extreme slow motion shot.
The camera team deserve a nod—at one point Coogler has the camera circling in and out of the scrum, so close it becomes an unwilling participant. As a viewer, you notice the strength of the filmmaking, but that soon dissolves and you enjoy the thrill of the fight.
“Creed” is creed and “Rocky” is Rocky, and for better or worse, he touches you. Hats off to Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington, who understand the character and write with respect. It’s a tender end.