So many times sports films, spin-offs and sequels on the big screen turn into disasters. One of the three rarely work. Combine all three, forget about it.
‘Creed’ the latest installment of the ‘Rocky’ franchise, and possibly the first film of a new angle of the boxing genre, had every reason to fail. Sports movies are hit-or-miss regardless of the sport and are only saved by accuracy, convincing acting and great action sequences.
A sequel, well so many things can go wrong. The story doesn’t move forward, the previous actors don’t return, and it basically sucks. And tell me one spin-off (film on TV) that has worked in the last decade.
But ‘Creed’ was different. ‘Creed’ got it right. From the moment I saw the preview for the first time I was drawn in.
First of all, the storyline was brilliant.
The story picks up in 1998, where we meet young Adonis Johnson, in his latest juvenile detention center, raining blows on a kid twice his size. It’s made clear that the young Johnson likes to fight and has bounced from one group home to another, those fists, more times than not, getting him in trouble.
We are introduced to Mary Anne, wife of the late Apollo Creed, played by the always lovely Phylicia Rashard. It’s made clear that young Adonis has never met his father and doesn’t even know that his pops was once the baddest boxer on the planet. What isn’t made clear right away is if Mary Anne is the mother of Adonis (later on we find out she isn’t), but she wants to take the young wild child in and give him the stable home he’s never had.
We then flip to the current day where we see an all-grown-up Adonis, played by Michael B. Jordan. From Wallace in ‘The Wire’ to Oscar in ‘Fruitvale Station,’ I challenge you to find me a tough-on-his-luck, hardnose character we root for more than Jordan, who I think is just scratching the surface of what looks like it can be a long, brilliant career on the big screen.
By night, grown up Adonis competes in underground fights in the slums of Mexico (where he is undefeated, 14-0 to be exact), by day he trades in his gloves for a shirt and tie, sitting behind the desk at a corporate job. Despite recently getting a promotion, his heart isn’t in it. When Adonis goes home at night, he pulls up old Apollo Creed fights on YouTube (so 2015) and shadow boxes with his dad.
To his credit, Jordan really looked the part of a boxer in this one. Not just physically, where it’s obvious he went all Christian Bale commitment for the role, but with his movement and mannerisms. To me, one of the hardest things an actor can do is convince me he is an athlete on screen. Jordan did it effortlessly.
Adonis quits his day job and commits to boxing full time, first seeking out the help of family friend Tony ‘Lil Duke’ Evers, played by one of my favorite actors, and another alum from ‘The Wire,’ Wood Harris. Lil Duke is the son of Tony Sr. who was Apollo’s and later Rocky’s trainer/manager in the earlier films. However, not even that family connection was enough to convince Lil Duke to train Adonis. Even after Adonis challenged, and knocked out, a more experienced boxer in Lil Duke’s gym, he was still trainer-less.
In a reversal of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Adonis left California and headed to Philadelphia, seeking out Rocky Balboa, played by none other than Sylvester Stallone. Sly’s presence on the screen is the only link between the Rocky films and Creed, even though a Carl Weathers, Obi Wan Kenobi-ish, dream sequence would have been alright with me.
Once Adonis gets to Philly, this is where the film picks up. Thanks to an awesome performance by Jordan, and to my surprise, an even better supporting role from Sly, you suddenly forget this is a Rocky spin-off, instead you get sucked into the story on Adonis making it in the boxing world, under the tutelage of Rocky, who Adonis affectionately calls “Unk.”
Adonis doesn’t want to be known as the son of Apollo, insisting wanting to make it on his own name – Johnson, and Rocky agrees. In the meantime Adonis meets a beautiful neighbor named Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson. Normally I’m against love interest in movies – I think Hollywood forces them sometimes, and I get why, but this one worked. The on-screen chemistry between Jordan and Thompson was believable and their relationship makes you think of a modern-day Rocky and Adrian … which, the more I think about it, was probably the point.
Adonis gets put through the paces by Rocky and some of his old boxing buddies, preparing Adonis for his first fight. This is where you get your classic, 80’s movies training montage. I’m all for it. I think more films should use montages, helps keeps the story moving, as well as gives you some good, head-nodding music. And the director, Ryan Coogler, did a really good job of capturing Philly. In fact, one could argue that the City of Brotherly Love is an extra character in all the Rocky films. Creed was no different. From the Meek Mill music playing in the background, to the kids on the Philly’s streets obsessed with ATVs, the new-age, on-screen Philly was brought to life.
So, Adonis wins his first fight, but the secret is out – everyone finds out he is Creed’s son. Current heavyweight champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, played by real-life boxer Tony Bellew, needs one more fight before he heads to prison (a boxer due to serve a prison sentence, sounds familiar?) and knows the Creed name will draw a big bank, especially with the legend Balboa in Creed’s corner.
Everything I will say from this point would be a spoiler, so I won’t go blow-for-blow the rest of the way. What I will do, however, is give credit where credit is due. Jordan owns the screen, showing his range of emotions as the young fighter with everything to prove. And I’ve never been the biggest Stallone fan, but he doesn’t disappoint playing Rocky. Even though he doesn’t throw a single punch, you still find yourself rooting for him in this film. The fight sequences are the best I’ve seen on screen, with the director making you feel every single punch thrown and landed. And I can’t stress enough how they really captured the essence of Philly, from teaching us how to use the slang “Jawn” to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also known as the “Rocky Steps.” Yes, there are plenty of nuggets for the old-school Rocky fans, the best one, in my opinion was the playing of the song, ‘Gonna Fly Now.’ I won’t tell you when it’s played, but at the moment I heard it a few tears formed in my eyes. It was that big of a moment.
The big moment, really, was when the final credits rolled. I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies and the audience gave a round of applause when the move ended. It was well deserved. ‘Creed’ was the classic Rocky story, with a new-age twist. This film makes you laugh, cry and feel everything in between. And when the final bell gongs, you would have survived 12 rounds of an emotional roller coaster that was a cinematic TKO.