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Creed

First there was Chronicle, in which Michael B. Jordan proved to be a charismatic young actor stuck with a third-wheel character and a story that killed him off too quickly. Then came Fruitvale Station, which tragically failed to be the star-making award-winning phenomenon it damn well should have been. Then there was Fantastic Four (2015), such a humiliating flop that Jordan’s controversial race-blind casting wouldn’t even count among the top 50 of the worst problems that movie had.

Basically put, Michael B. Jordan shows all the makings of an extraordinary young actor with terrible luck. The guy keeps doing everything right and he still keeps on losing, which is painful to see.

Though lucky for us, Jordan doesn’t seem to have a problem picking himself back up and trying as hard as he can.

For this latest effort, Jordan reunited with his old Fruitvale writer/director Ryan Coogler, now on his sophomore picture. And this wouldn’t be some obscure indie movie with a downer ending that would send audiences home shell-shocked. No, they were partnering with Sly Fucking Stallone for a continuation of his legendary Rocky series.

But unlike most franchises, which might have shifted to the next generation by passing the torch to the main character’s progeny, this one hands the franchise down to the son of its original antagonist.

Thus we have Creed, in which Jordan plays Adonis “Donny” Johnson, the bastard son of Carl Weathers’ iconic Apollo Creed. Weathers himself doesn’t appear in the movie (aside from archive footage from the previous movies), having been killed off by Ivan Drago in that ’80s cheese classic Rocky IV. Admittedly, I haven’t actually seen any of the Rocky films after the first one — much like Stallone’s Rambo movies, I’m of the opinion that the first one should never have had a sequel to begin with, much less half a dozen.

Luckily, I’m very glad to say that while the movie has all sorts of nods and references to the previous films, it never does so in a way that alienates newcomers. Despite its flaws, the film very neatly builds on the movies that came before to create something new and exciting and inspirational on its own terms.

As an example, the Rocky series has always been an underdog story at its heart and core. In keeping with that tradition, we’ve got a young black man who grew up going from one foster home to another when he wasn’t staying in juvie. At least until Donny is found by Apollo’s widow (Mary Anne Creed, played by Phylicia Rashad) and taken in. From there, Donny grows up in LA, in the mansion built with Apollo Creed’s massive fortune, driving a fantastic Mustang, and working at a prestigious financial firm where he’s just gotten a big promotion, and… wait, what was that about this being an underdog story?

Oh, right — Donny quits his job, gives away his Mustang, moves out of his stepmother’s house, and travels across the country so he can train to be a full-time boxer on the mean streets of Philadelphia. And why does he do this?

No, really, why does he do this? Did we miss a reel of film somewhere? This is pretty much the catalyst for the entire story, and the main character’s motivation for it is barely even glossed over. The guy wants to fight for a living because that’s what he loves, as best I can figure, but that’s still some pretty weak tea, especially in the way it’s presented here.

The love interest has a similar problem. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is a young woman with progressive hearing loss. Yet she’s taken up a musical career so she can keep on doing what she loves for as long as she can. She’s a very interesting character, beautifully played by Thompson.

The Donny/Bianca romace arc goes through its predictable peaks and valleys beat for beat, whether their actions make any sense or not. Again, it feels too often like the characters have already fallen for each other, and we’ve skipped over so many minutes of footage to show precisely how that happened. There’s also the fact that whatever Bianca may be going through, it has close to zero impact on the journey of our main character. It’s a grave disservice to the character that renders her pretty much entirely useless. And yet Thompson’s screen presence and her chemistry with Jordan are so smoldering that she almost — ALMOST — makes it work.

The antagonist is another character who sadly gets shafted. “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is the current undefeated world champion (because of course he is, it’s a Rocky movie), and after defeating pretty much every pro fighter in the world, he’s just about to start a seven-year prison sentence. The guy has two sons, and he won’t get to see them grow up. Hell, he may not have enough cash to keep a roof over their heads for that long while he’s in prison without an income. Moreover, after spending so many of his prime years behind bars, it’s entirely possible that his career may be over for good the moment he steps into that cell. So Conlan needs one last incredible fight before going out. And since he’s already beaten everyone else, pulverizing the young upstart bastard son of Apollo Creed (currently an overnight sensation who’s only barely started his career as a professional) will just have to do.

The movie presents all these opportunities to bring some measure of depth to our opposing fighter. And they are all summarily thrown away so that Conlan and everyone around him can act like a loudmouthed jerk just begging for an uppercut. Such a waste.

I suppose I should also mention Phylicia Rashad, here inheriting the role of Mary Anne Creed from Lavelle Roby and Sylvia Meals. The widow Creed only gets a few scenes, but she does a fine job with what she has. It certainly helps that this is the kind of role Rashad could play in her sleep, having secured her legacy playing one of the most iconic mothers in sitcom history. Hell, it’s all to easy to imagine that Rashad might have actually been cast as Creed’s wife in the previous movies.

But enough about the supporting cast. Now we get to what really makes this movie work so well: Adonis and Rocky. On the one hand, Rocky is a boxer who’s long since accepted that his best years are behind him. He’s never getting in the ring again. He’s really fucking old. To be perfectly blunt, he’s dying. And the heartbreaking thing is, he’s okay with that. After all, everyone he’s ever cared about (Adrian, Paulie, Mickey, Apollo… pretty much everyone else from the first movie, come to think of it) is already dead. Rocky has nothing left. So he’s got the son of Creed to train. So what? Donny is the future, and Rocky’s an antique. There’s no need for Rocky to keep on adding to his legacy — it’s already long secure.

As for Donny, he spends pretty much the entire film coming to grips with his daddy issues. Which is made to be a lot more interesting than it sounds. To start with, there’s the fact that he’s a bastard child, borne of his father’s marital infidelity. Which means that the mere public knowledge of his existence could be enough to bring permanent damage to his father’s legacy.

Moreover, Apollo died before Adonis was even born. It’s entirely possible that Apollo never even knew he was going to be the father to this kid. So it’s anyone’s guess what the elder Creed would have wanted for his progeny, or whether he wanted his son to make the same mistakes he did. This also gives Donny much stronger bonds with Rocky and with Mary Anne. After all, they knew Apollo and Donny didn’t, so their opinions and approval will have to be good enough.

But of course, the biggest issue is the name. Donny doesn’t want to be seen as some punk who gets to coast on name recognition, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to be seen as a fraud trying and failing to be his father. And yet, his father’s legacy is a huge part of who he is. The challenge of taking whatever he’s inherited and making it his own provides the central emotional core of the movie. And in the hands of Jordan and Coogler, it’s compelling to watch.

That said, Donny is of course just as much Rocky’s heir as Apollo’s. The Donny/Rocky interplay is a crucial pillar of the film, and it takes up a huge chunk of screenplay. It’s genuinely great to watch the two of them learn more about each other, tear each other down, and support each other toward new levels of greatness. It’s a huge part of what makes the signature training montages so energetic. And when the two of them get to re-enact iconic moments from the previous film with their own unique spin, it’s really satisfying to watch.

Jordan and Stallone are just as compelling as well. I don’t think I should have to tell you how great Stallone is, considering that he’s been living with Rocky for 40 years. The actor and the character have been so inseparably linked for so many decades that of course he knows exactly how Rocky is feeling at this point in his life and he knows exactly how to express those feelings on camera in a way that feels consistent with the character we all know and love.

(Side note: Keep an eye out for a picture in which Rocky is playing around with his son. Given that Rocky Balboa Jr. was played in Rocky V by Sage Stallone, who tragically died of a heart attack in 2012, the moment carries a deeper level of heartache.)

As for Jordan, holy shit. This guy brings more than enough fire and intensity to sell the audience on this character. Even in those moments when the plot stumbles and Donny’s motivation thins, Jordan brings so much energy that it’s easy to believe that it all makes sense to him and he’ll make it work somehow. Even when the romance arc makes no sense, Jordan shows enough vulnerability to keep it plausible. And I really can’t stress enough how impressive it is that this character goes on for two solid hours about his daddy issues in some way or another, and Jordan makes it compelling.

Even when the film is at its weakest, Jordan’s performance elevates the proceedings into something well worth watching. And when the film is at its strongest, Jesus Tapdancing Christ.

Just to name one example, there’s a scene in which Donny is running through the streets of Philly. And he’s being followed by a bunch of street punks on scooters, shouting out “Creed!” But they’re doing it in such a way that they’re clearly cheering for him, not just someone else’s kid. In that moment, we really are made to feel like the entire city (or at least that neighborhood) is rallying around Creed the way Philadelphia rallied around Rocky. It feels like he’s earned the right to be recognized and respected as a true contender.

In short, that scene is the 21st century’s answer to the Rocky Steps scene in the original movie. And it’s not like the movie is shamelessly rehashing that iconic scene, recycling old shots or music. No, no, no — it’s like the filmmakers took that moment and made it their own. We get that same emotional high, and it’s a hugely crucial moment for Creed in all the same ways that the Steps were for Rocky, but it’s all delivered in a way that uniquely belongs to this movie and this character. Spectacularly done.

That said, there are times when composer Ludwig Goransson (another Fruitvale alumnus) lifts themes from Bill Conti’s beloved score. But those quotations of the Rocky theme are few, they are brief, and they are really fucking hard-earned. It’s made to feel like a huge triumph when we hear those familiar horn blares, which is exactly as it damn well should be. Otherwise, the score is big, brassy, energetic, and operatic, perfectly in keeping with the classic “Rocky” sound.

As for the visuals… well, they’re hit-and-miss. On the one hand, the big climactic fight is every bit as visceral and thrilling as you could expect. And the training montages are generally very satisfying to watch. But there were too many times when the camera seemed to get in the way of the earlier fight scenes. Either something is blocking our view, or the camera is too close on the actors’ faces for us to see the punches. Though we do get a boxing scene that’s presented as a single incredible long take, so kudos for that.

All told, there’s no denying that Creed is a very good film. The supporting cast could have been stronger, and the plot is admittedly loaded with holes, especially early on. Yet Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are both strong enough to power the film, and there’s more than enough heart to keep the film afloat. Plus, that climactic fight scene is just incredible.

It’s an action-packed inspirational underdog story, precisely the way a Rocky film should be. Yet it’s been lovingly repackaged for a newer, younger audience, with undeniable respect for the movies that came before. Highly recommended.

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