CREED (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
for violence, language, and some sensuality
Released: November 25, 2015
Runtime: 132 minutes
Starring:  Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew

Creed is ranked #10 on my Top Ten List for 2015

Creed, both the movie and its title character, have a lot to live up to. And they do. Spectacularly so.

Resurrecting a seemingly dead six-film saga in inspired fashion, Creed revitalizes the Rocky-verse by following in its rugged roots. This isn’t a lazy nostalgia cash-grab; Creed is a reboot that respects, emulates, and matches the series at its best. Not looking to improve or exceed the franchise’s most extravagant blockbuster excesses, up-and-coming writer/director Ryan Coogler tells an intimate story straight from the heart, and evokes cheers, tears, and chills all along the way.

The simple yet uncommon ingenuity of Creed is how Coogler and his cast take basic – even predictable – plot elements and infuse them with veracity and depth. The narrative may be about the bastard son of Apollo Creed looking to make a name for himself in the boxing world, but the movie is about a young man who never knew his father and yet is haunted and burdened by his legacy. It’s about an old man, Rocky Balboa, whose lost (and is lost without) the very thing that a young man, Adonis Johnson (the last name of his dead mother), never had: a family. Yes, there’s boxing and training too, and it’s all fiercely done, but it’s these thematic undercurrents (and not the fight results) that give Creed its dramatic stakes.

Creed employs a familiar Rocky template: Adonis is a legitimate underdog whose given (rather than having earned) a title shot, his training techniques are blue collar and barebones (not some high tech regimen), it’s all done in the gyms and on the streets of Philadelphia, there’s the crusty old trainer (Rocky is now Mickey), and Adonis even has his own Adrian – Bianca, a local singer he meets on the apartment floor below his. But rather than a rehash of an old formula, the story grows from these multi-layered characters, their own internal conflicts, and the bonds (and tensions) that these relationships form.

To that end, this boxing movie’s most engaging scenes are the talky two-handers between Adonis and Rocky, of which the film often (and wisely) relies on. They connect and build trust, but then as they grow too close or things get too real, their scarred heart-broken psyches instinctively push each other away. That ongoing ebb and flow is a credible, moving dynamic, one imbued with emotional power by Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone.

Jordan continues to improve (and impress) on the promise of a sterling young career, while Stallone’s comes full circle with his best, most raw and revealing screen turn since the first Rocky nearly forty years ago. The role that earned Stallone his first Oscar nomination may be the one that finally gives him the win.

Supporting that core relationship is the love story between Adonis and Bianca which is just as convincing and vital, as are the few but critical scenes between Adonis and his stepmom (a.k.a. Apollo’s widow) Mary Anne. As Bianca, Tessa Thompson emerges from indie films and character parts into her first substantial high-profile role and stakes a claim as an actress to watch; she’s a legit talent who really lives in the moment. And Phylicia Rashad brings a maternal force with strength and conviction.

Cooglar, an African-American filmmaker still just in his late 20s, brings the understated-but-potent street-level grit he captured in his lauded 2013 true story feature debut Fruitvale Station (which also starred Jordan) and elevates it with a subtle mythic quality appropriate to the Rocky tradition.

Along with the nuanced complexities of the character drama, Cooglar really knows how to stage and assemble fight scenes for both instant and cumulative impact. These are memorable bouts, from the single take 2-round fight about halfway through (yes, that’s one shot, not a deceptive digitally-patched sequence of takes; bravo to DP Maryse Alberti – yes, a female cinematographer!) to the final climactic match that surges with adrenaline and emotion.

Composer Ludwig Göransson also serves Bill Conti’s legacy well, weaving some of those original tender love themes into a modern score that infuses Conti’s chorus and brass with a progressive sensibility. While Göransson’s new main theme can’t match Conti’s iconic one, it still fits seamlessly into the saga’s musical fabric. (And the moment we do finally hear that classic cue – even if only briefly – it’s perfectly timed for maximum inspirational effect.)

Creed doesn’t rescue the franchise from its late series bloat (III and IV) or desperation (V); Rocky Balboa, the sixth and final “formal” entry of Rocky’s story – written and directed by Stallone – did that ten years ago. Seriously, if you’ve not seen it then it’s a must-see, and a perfect bookend to the first.

But Creed does continue and expand the franchise’s potential, invigorating fresh blood (not to mention cultural perspective) into an ongoing story that now officially transcends generations. And whether or not Creed gets its own II, III, IV, or more, this one will remain one of the most unexpected and hugely rewarding cinematic rebirths in the history of the movies.

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