MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Sports Drama/Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Wood Harris, Ritchie Coster, Tone Trump, Brian Anthony Wilson, Andre Ward, Gabriel Rosado, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Michael Buffer, Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, Hannah Storm, Max Kellerman, Jim Lampley, Alex Henderson; Voice of: Liev Schreiber/ Runtime: 133 minutes
I think it can be safely said that, among the more noteworthy franchises in the realm of cinema, the series of films dealing with iconic boxer Rocky Balboa is one that has witnessed more than its fair share of both peaks and valleys. Indeed this is because whereas the first film is seen, and rightfully so, as a bonafide classic, the 4 films that came after it all range from entertaining to just downright terrible (looking at you Rocky V). Of course then came Rocky Balboa in 2006 and it was so wonderfully made to say nothing of conceived that it really did feel like the best possible send-off to this iconic character. This then brings us to the slice of cinema I am reviewing today. 2015’s spin-off/ franchise continuation Creed, and honestly whatever fears I may have had I am so glad to be able to say how misguided those fears turned out to be. Indeed from a narrative perspective, this slice of cinema does a wonderful job of not diminishing the wonderful work done by Rocky Balboa courtesy of a story that not only acts as an terrific expansion of the world of the franchise, but also as a surprisingly delightful continuation of Rocky’s story that manages to feel genuinely organic and emotional. Yet even when you factor in the wonderful work done by this slice of cinema’s director, his talented crew behind the camera, and a collection of performances in front of the camera that feel both authentic and heartfelt there is no denying that Creed is one franchise revival that yes goes the distance in reminding you of why audiences love this franchise as much as they do. At the same time though, it also manages to take it in a direction for the future that feels genuinely exciting and that is a rare yet wonderful thing to behold in its own right.
The plot is as follows: Creed gets its nine-round saga underway courtesy of a flashback that is designed to introduce us to a boy by the name of Adonis Johnson who, when the film opens, is currently enjoying some time in L.A. juvenile detention where he has been placed *yet again* for fighting other boys. Yet even though Adonis looks like he is about to become a more permanent guest of the state due to his status as an orphan who has been shuttled from place to place, we see that life has other plans for him. Plans that soon make themselves apparent when he is surprisingly visited by a woman named Mary Anne. A woman who, among other things, has agreed to adopt him, but not before breaking the news to him that he is the product of an affair had at one time by her departed husband. A man who we all know to be a former yet still highly regarded boxer by the name of Apollo Creed (though I’m sure you knew that was coming). From there, the film moves on to the present where we see that Adonis (or Donnie as he goes by with both family and friends) is now a young adult and still residing with Mary Anne in Apollo’s very nice estate and making futile stabs at keeping a desk job though a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that he spends his weekends engaging in underground bouts in Tijuana. Even with that in mind, there is no denying that although Donnie is an extremely skilled fighter, he also is struggling with the giant chip on his shoulder in the form of wanting as little to do with his dad or his legacy as possible and just wanting to be his own man. As a result we see that in an attempt to really find himself, even if his adoptive mom has some significant reservations about it, our hero makes the decision to head on out to Philadelphia to try and get some training time with the one guy he thinks could train him better than anyone else: Apollo’s former opponent turned dear friend and boxing legend in his own right Rocky Balboa. Of course it should come as no surprise to learn that the ol’ pugilist has some fairly hefty reservations about taking on any role in the boxing world, but we soon see that Donnie’s passion and heart win him over and the duo begin to develop a bond that is less trainer and trainee and more surrogate nephew and uncle respectively. It is also around this time that Donnie crosses paths with his aspiring musician neighbor named Bianca and, despite a first impression that could have gone better, starts to actually develop a romantic relationship with her. Of course as Rocky and Donnie train, we see that they desperately try to keep who his father was hidden. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before we see that this information not only becomes public knowledge, but that a current British light-heavyweight champion by the name of “Pretty” Ricky Conlan aims to capitalize on it due to needing an opponent for his final fight and thinking our hero, with his legacy, might be the perfect choice. Suffice it to say that with the fight of his life coming up and Rocky having his own serious issues to deal with outside the ring, can our young hero look past the demons that have long haunted him and become not only a good fighter in his own right, but also a genuinely great man? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself….
Now make no mistake this slice of cinema might not ever devolve and become a straight up mockery of the iconic franchise of which it is a part, but one element that might be a detriment to this slice of cinema for some is that it has a wee bit of a dependency on the time-honored Rocky formula. Yes this slice of cinema doesn’t really dabble in the Russian superman trope from the 4th one (which I still enjoy to be honest) for example, but a lot of the formula is on display including the final fight and jogging up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (something I have personally done and that I can also personally attest my body has yet to fully forgive me for). At the same time however, this dependency might be a detriment for some, but when it is done with this much in the way of genuine heart and passion it really does become quite the positive in this slice of cinema’s corner. Indeed make no mistake dear reader there are references to virtually every prior entry in this franchise that are both low-key (a mention of Rocky’s son Robert for example) and very overt (Rocky apparently revealing the winner of his and Apollo’s friendly bout at the end of Rocky III). Along with that, we see that film helmer Coogler does a beautiful job of utilizing the bond between Rocky and Apollo from the previous films in such a way that it really does give this slice of cinema the gravitas it desperately required. Yet it’s not just Apollo who is referenced here as we see that this film also references other characters from the past in ways that are amusing at certain points, but also downright emotional at others. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that noted music composer Bill Conti’s famous beats do show up in this, but only in the moments where they are needed most. As for the rest of the time, this slice of cinema is truly blessed to have composer Ludwig Göransson who does a wonderful job at conjuring up a rousing and truly inspiring score all his own which he then partners up brilliantly with an original soundtrack featuring music from such terrific artists as Future, Meek Mill, Donald Glover, Jhené Aiko, Vince Staples, and even co-star Tessa Thompson respectively. Thus in that regard this slice of cinema undoubtedly has respect for all that has come before, but it also has no issues with blazing its own distinct trail and being its own thing either. Finally, because this slice of cinema is technically an entry in the “Rocky” franchise, it should come as no surprise to learn that not only are there quite a few wonderfully done training montages scattered throughout this slice of cinema, but also that the final bout in this is a no holds barred, go big or go home style bout for the ages that is the blessed recipient of top-notch work from the editing department as well as one bloody yet gorgeous slo-mo shot. Oh and that it will most likely also see you, the viewer applauding and cheering in the way that the best moments in any genuinely great sports film tends to do like the final match at the end of 2004’s fantastic hockey film Miracle for example to say nothing of the fact that it is one of the finest filmed boxing matches in this series in quite some time. With that said however, it is earlier in this slice of cinema’s runtime that we see the creative team behind the camera really take things up a notch on a technical level. Indeed filmed in what looks, for all intents and purposes, to be one take, Donnie’s first pretty big bout is set up with jaw-dropping skill. Indeed the camera is able to weave its way through the skirmish on such a level you’d swear there were 3 fighters instead of two, the 2 combatants nailing every beat brilliantly, and the added in crowd noise and trainers yelling at their respective fighters all combine to make this cinematic fight one that feels truly mesmerizing in the best way possible. Indeed you may start that scene really respecting the skill on display, but don’t be surprised if by the end you are on the edge of your seat about to tear into the fabric.
Now in terms of the cast, it should be said that every single person in this is easily operating at the pinnacle of their respective talents. This starts with, in the lead role, Michael B. Jordan who really does with this slice of cinema make up for his participation in that excruciatingly terrible mess that I think was Fox trying to remake Fantastic Four, but I still can’t be entirely sure about that. At any rate, we see that with the character of Adonis, Jordan does a terrific job of not only looking like he could be Carl Weathers’ (the OG Creed for those of you not in the know) son, but also in giving the character both the required physicality to carry the scenes where the guy is duking it out in the ring, and also a wonderful mix of heart, deep-seated yet relatable abandonment issues, and empathy respectively. An emotional concoction incidentally that is absolutely crucial to the story being told within this film. Indeed it is no easy feat to find yourself becoming the lead in a series that is already 6 films in, but it is also quite the beautiful thing when the OG lead doesn’t appear in this one for a good solid 20 minutes and yet you’re still sold hook, line, and sinker on the character in front of you to say nothing of his character’s journey. Suffice it to say it is one heck of a performance by one of the finest young talents in the land of movie magic today. Now this slice of cinema’s scribes may have provided the character of Bianca with depth, but it is only through the magnetic performance by Tessa Thompson that she is also given a beautiful amount of heart as well. Indeed with this character, Thompson gives us a woman who is just as driven in her world of singing as Donnie is in the world of boxing. Not only that, but in the character of Bianca we get a woman who is someone our boy wonder can love with all of his heart, but also for him to really support and respect as much as she does him. Suffice it to say that the chemistry between Jordan and Thompson is really heartfelt and seemingly authentic which is terrific for the film since the character of Bianca is someone Donnie spends a lot of time with. Well besides his “Unc” (as he lovingly takes to calling him) Rocky of course. Speaking of….I guess I should say that I am really glad that Stallone was not as concerned with the behind the scenes work on this one nearly as much as the prior installments. I say that because by letting Coogler take charge on this one and making his main focus on reprising the role of Rocky, Sly manages to give a performance that is easily one of the finest of his entire career. Not in terms of action beats or anything that Sly is genuinely known for mind you, but rather in terms of genuine acting period. Indeed not only is this a take on Rocky that feels appropriate to everything we as movie goers know and love about the character, but it also is one that feels equally as appropriate to Stallone in terms of where he is at in both his life and his career. I mean there are moments in this with Rocky be it in dialogue he says or in actions that he does that honestly had me close to tears because of how powerful and genuinely emotive Stallone was in delivering them. Suffice it to say I know he might not have won the Oscar for his role in this, but if no other reason I give you convinces you to give this slice of cinema a watch then do it for Stallone’s performance. I promise you will not regret it. Finally, we see that real-life boxer Tony Bellew does a pretty darn good job in the film as “Pretty Boy” Conlan despite not being in the film a lot. Indeed what I like about the character the most, besides getting an actual fighter to play him, is that while he is our hero’s main opponent, I wouldn’t exactly call him a “villain”. I mean the guy is not some stoic, one-note Russian superman out to singlehandedly punch-out the US in the Cold War. Rather, he’s just a fierce fighter with a mouth to match who is just wanting one last genuinely good match before he takes some time off for…..reasons. Suffice it to say that when looking at the role in that regard Bellew is terrific and I wish he would show up in further cinematic endeavors where he’s NOT punching someone.
All in all “Build your own legacy”. This is a phrase that I can safely say manages to function beyond just simply heartfelt encouragement spoken from one character to another in this film. Indeed these words are also meant to operate as a beautiful reminder to each and every one of us to always strive to aim to create on a level that is both potent and riveting rather than one that is meant to just be ehhhh and/or run of the mill. For the purposes of this slice of cinema however, we see that it also served as a reminder to give the movie goer a chance to reconnect with a truly wonderful cinematic icon whilst also offering us an entirely new chapter to their story. Suffice it to say that with 2015’s Creed, the talented cast and crew both behind and in front of the camera have managed to give us a film that is a true treasure. Not just in how it accepts the past with a wonderful degree of heart or how it conjures up a here and now that is truly reinvigorated, but in how it managed to establish a truly exciting new direction for one of the most iconic film franchises ever given to audiences to go down in the years to follow. Indeed with electrifying work in front of the camera, and magnificent work behind it Creed is more than just simply a good movie. Rather it is no more and no less than pure grade-A cinematic magic and definitely worthy of your time and energy. Make of that what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Creed “2015” a solid 4 out of 5.