Nutshell: Director Ryan Coogler delivers a TKO of a film, one that celebrates what’s come before while bringing the Rocky/Creed story into the present. Michael B. Jordan is a powerhouse in more ways than one. Grade: A-
“That bell don’t mean schools out. That bell means hell.”
I won’t lie, I bawled like a baby when I saw Apollo Creed go down for the last time in Rocky 4. Bawled. Then went home and tried to re-write the story in my head, because Apollo had gone from Rocky’s nemesis to a trusted friend, and a character I’d grown to care about. Apollo’s death was devastating, and while the rest of Rocky 4 is so-so (great ‘roid-pump-up soundtrack & revenge film, maybe not so great with its thin skim of plot), that moment is forever etched upon my mind.
So when I heard that there was a film coming out that would look at Apollo Creed’s son Adonis (aka “Donny”, if you ask Rocky)? I worried. Let’s face it; while Rocky Balboa was a fun ride, it strained credulity. Then I heard the film would have the one-two punch of Fruitville Station‘s Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, and that Creed would work not only as a new Rocky installment, but as a stand-alone story. I got interested.
This isn’t to say that Creed doesn’t spin more tales of the Italian Stallion. In fact, I’d say the film is 50/50 Donny and Rocky. Coogler focuses on the friendship that develops between the two, and the changes they both go through as Donny trains to become a fighter. Adonis Johnson started off in group homes and juvie after his mother (whom Apollo had an affair with shortly before his death) passed away. Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (the always wonderful Phylicia Rashad) finds Adonis, and raises him. After trying to be a financial advisor — while heading to Tijuana bouts to fight on the down-low — Adonis quits his job and moves to Philly. Why? To train with Rocky, of course. But Rocky doesn’t understand why “Donny” would want to fight — “Why would you pick a fighting life when you don’t have to?” — but the two men soon bond. But Rocky soon has his own fight…
From frame one, scene one of this series, Sylvester Stallone has lived and breathed Rocky Balboa. So it’s no surprise that the actor can take that character to the next chapter of his life, and do it well. Michael B. Jordan does equally well with Donny, though through much of the film he’s not given much more to work with than pent-up anger and the drive to succeed. I’d have liked a deeper look into that character’s psyche, though I guess at that point in the character’s arc there’s not much to dig into but those unresolved issues.
While Rocky’s love is a memory (though she’s ever present in Adrien’s, Rocky’s memento strewn restaurant), Donny woos downstairs neighbor Bianca, a singer who’s also trying to break out. Bianca starts off a solid, fully formed character, but soon fades into the background. Then again, the same can be said of Adrien in the original Rocky. But Bianca is played by the amazing Tessa Thompson, who I’d watch in just about anything (hint: if you haven’t seen Dear White People yet, stream that immediately.) It doesn’t hurt that Bianca has an FKA twigs-meets-Lauren Hill kinda vibe. I’d go to her concerts.
By turning a laser-focus onto his lead characters, Coogler makes a film about boxers feel like a story about everyman. Yes, there are training scenes — including the requisite killer soundtrack — and a climax that is literally bloody fantastic. But Creed goes beyond the basics of the action/sports genres because the themes here are universal, and Coogler lets ’em take center stage. Er, ring. Speaking of fight scenes? The fight choreography here is incredible. Not only does it look realistic, it’s so intense you may find yourself gasping. Bring your pearls y’all, you’ll need something to clutch. Fight coordinator Clayton J. Barber definitely knows his stuff, and lightning fast editing by Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver add intensity to the scenes.
Sure, there are a lot of films hitting the multiplex this Awards Season Onslaught time of year. But Creed is a film that already feels like a classic. That makes it stand out from much of the pack.