Movie Review: “Creed”

Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish
Ryan Coogler

After garnering critical acclaim for his directorial debut “Fruitvale Station,” the last thing anyone expected from Ryan Coogler’s much-anticipated follow-up was a spin-off/sequel to a movie franchise that’s last meaningful installment was released 30 years ago. Coogler is just the latest in an ongoing trend of indie directors (Colin Trevorrow, Josh Trank, etc.) who have been plucked by the studios to revive major Hollywood properties despite their lack of experience, though you wouldn’t know it from watching “Creed.” Reuniting with his “Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan, Coogler has created an energizing addition to the “Rocky” series that doesn’t just succeed as a respectful passing of the torch, but as one of the best “Rocky” movies ever made.

Jordan stars as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of former boxing champion Apollo Creed, who was taken in at a young age by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), after bouncing around the foster care system as a kid. Born after Apollo was tragically killed in the ring, Adonis grew up never knowing his father (which is why he goes by his mother’s maiden name), but has chosen to follow in his footsteps. When he gives up a promising job at an investment firm to focus on his boxing career, Adonis leaves Los Angeles for Philadelphia in the hopes of convincing local legend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Though Rocky declines the offer at first, he eventually agrees to take the young Adonis – a self-taught fighter with raw talent, but who’s lacking the refinement of proper training – under his wing. Adonis is adamant about forging his own path without the help of his father’s legacy, but when his secret is revealed and he’s offered a fight against the reigning world champion, he must prove to himself (and his detractors) that he’s worthy of the Creed name.

Though this marks the first film to feature the Rocky Balboa character that Stallone didn’t write, “Creed” is very much a part of the “Rocky” series. Another filmmaker might have tried to distance the movie from the previous six installments by finding a way to tell the story without Rocky’s involvement, but Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington were smart to not only include the character in their script, but make him an integral part of the story. The film doesn’t work without Rocky, because it hinges completely on the chemistry between him and Adonis, with the former serving both as a mentor and father figure.

Jordan brings a fierceness and vulnerability to the title character that makes his journey very different from Rocky’s own rise to fame (he has a massive chip on his shoulder, and he doesn’t try to hide it), while Stallone delivers his best work in years with a subtler and more emotional performance that continues Rocky’s own arc without stealing thunder from the main storyline. Tessa Thompson (“Dear White People”) is also good as the aspiring musician who becomes romantically involved with Adonis – the Adrian to his Rocky, if you will – even if the romantic subplot is arguably the weakest part of the film.

Coogler makes the transition from indie to mainstream filmmaking remarkably well; he provides all the crowd-pleasing moments you’d expect without sacrificing the kind of intimate, character-driven storytelling that made “Fruitvale Station” so effective. Although the specifics of how Adonis is awarded the big fight at the end are pretty ridiculous, it’s an incredibly entertaining sequence (complete with the return of Apollo’s famous stars-and-stripes shorts) that atones for the surprising lack of boxing action throughout the rest of the movie. Granted, the final hour of “Creed” follows the 1976 original perhaps a little too closely, but it does enough to distinguish itself as its own entity – including some stylish direction from Coogler – while still paying homage to the legacy of the “Rocky” films.