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A Rocky Road Show

Warner Brothers
 133 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Ryan Coogler 
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone

Over the last 40 years, the movie Rocky has been imitated so many times that it’s become the prototype for nearly every sports movie, certainly every bad sports movie, made today. Some of those imitations have come in the form of ever weaker sequels that have helped turn star Sylvester Stallone into a parody of his former self. Stallone went from a rising young star to a man who has earned a record 32 Razzie nominations over the years (including Worst Actor of the 20tb Century). But, as the actor approaches 70, redemption may have finally come for Stallone in Creed, and it’s come in the form a very familiar role.


In Creed, Stallone plays Rocky Balboa for the seventh time officially, although one could easily say that many of his other roles over the years have been Rocky knockoffs. But instead of turning the role into another increasingly ridiculous attempt to prove that he’s still a buff action star, as he’s done with numerous other recent projects, he’s playing the role more closely to the way it was originally written. Director Ryan Coogler understands Rocky and Rocky, in a way most of the imitators over the years, including Stallone himself, didn’t. As a result, Coogler has made not only the best sequel to Rocky but one of the best sports movies of recent years.


Creed is a boxing movie for the 21st century, featuring a new generation of actors playing a new generation of characters in the Rocky universe. Michael B. Jordan is Adonis Creed, orphaned illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s former foe turned best friend, Apollo Creed. As a boy, Adonis wound up in trouble with the law until Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) took him in and raised him, keeping his parentage a secret. Although Adonis took advantage of his position to get an education and a white-collar financial job, he is consumed by a passion to duplicate or surpass his father’s success in the ring.


A series of wins over bottom-of-the-barrel opponents in fights held in Tijuana bars doesn’t satisfy Adonis. When getting quickly knocked down while sparring with a top contender shows Adonis how much training he needs to succeed against real competition, he quits his job and heads east to Philadelphia, seeking out Rocky himself in the hopes of getting a mentor and trainer. Rocky, however, wants nothing to do with boxing or his old life anymore. He is content to manage his bar and take trips to the cemetery to visit the graves of his wife Adrian and friend Paulie while waiting out the days until he joins them.


When Adonis reveals his lineage to Rocky, the older man reluctantly agrees to start training Adonis in the same hectic, often comic way that his own trainer Mickey began training him. After a couple of months, Adonis gets and wins his first match, a local club match against the son of Pete Sporino (Ritchie Coster), the man who now runs Mickey’s gym. Pete is hurt that Rocky wouldn’t help train his son and, when he discovers who Adonis really is, leaks the news to the press.


The revelation turns into an Internet firestorm and catches the attention of the manager of Pretty Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the world champion. Conlan is facing serious jail time for his involvement in a brawl and has only one more payday left before he begins his sentence. Unfortunately for him, he’s defeated every worthy contender, so no more big money fights loom. The manager realizes that a fight against Apollo Creed’s son can generate fan interest and revenue and arranges the match with a reluctant Rocky, provided that Adonis fights under the Creed name.


The theme of Creed is essentially the same as that of the original Rocky, the heavy underdog who gets his chance to become somebody by getting a shot, however seemingly infinitesimal, at the championship. But it’s not the same movie, because director Coogler (who also co-wrote the script) makes it clear that he’s not making the same movie. Instead, he populates Creed with fully developed characters with flaws of their own that are different from those of the characters in the original movie. These characters include Bianca (Tessa Thompson), Adonis’ love interest, a singer who’s a lot more sure of herself than the painfully shy Adrian (Talia Shire) was in Rocky.


Similarly, Adonis’ problem is the fact that he walks around with a chip on his shoulder thanks to his parentage and upbringing that occasionally flares up and actually lands him in jail during the course of the film. This, of course, is a far cry from the easy go-with-the-flow Rocky whose problem originally was a lack of ambition. What hasn’t changed from the original Rocky is the love that the main characters feel for one another. That’s what made Rocky special—the people who genuinely cared about him. And that’s what’s present in Creed as well.


Of course, Creed shrewdly incorporates a lot of other details from the Rocky movies, including Bill Conti’s classic score (updated with a hip hop beat), the offbeat training regimen that Adonis endures, and even a scene on the steps where the Rocky Statue now stands. The fight scenes also echo the original Rocky, brutal and bloody, as both Adonis and Conlan beat each other to a pulp during the course of the fight. Coogler has done an excellent job of choreographing and staging them, doubtless with the assistance of Tony Bellew, who is a European champion boxer in his own right.


My first impression upon seeing a movie as impressive as Creed was to hope for a follow-up showcasing the talents of Jordan and Coogler. However, studio pressure could turn that project into another ill-fated version of Rocky II or worse. Instead, I’m hopeful that the two of them can find other projects as worthy of their talents. Creed scores a knockout on its own; there’s no need for a curtain call here. 

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Creed (2015) on IMDb