OP-ROB RATING: ALL-STAR
“Creed” is the newest installment of the “Rocky” series, which it reflects in many ways. However, this time around Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is old and in very poor health. He doesn’t throw a single punch. If the title of the film isn’t clear enough, the main focus is on Adonis “Donny” Johnson/Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of the great Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). For those that haven’t seen the films, Apollo was one of Rocky’s greatest rivals and friends who died in the ring before his son was born. In the opening scenes we are introduced to the rowdy, troubled little boy named Adonis who is spending his time in a youth penitentiary when Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo’s widow, shows up to take in the young boy as her own. Donny then grows up in the Creed’s L.A. mansion and despite an education and a great job, opts to pursue a career in the ring as a boxer.
In most ways, “Creed” is similar to any other “Rocky” movie. The main hero is introduced with challenges and obstacles that he must overcome. There is a love interest fulfilled by a musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson). There are training montages and a culmination scene in the same spirit as the very first “Rocky”. Ultimately Donny ends up in the ring with a formidable fighter named “Pretty Ricky” Conlan (Tony Bellew) and must face everything he has learned and struggled to achieve. While all of these events may seem cliché and boring, “Creed” finds ways to become unique and take on a name of its own.
A defining hurdle that Donny must jump is his own privilege. Unlike most fighters, he has come from considerable wealth and opportunity. When he first shows up to a gym in Philadelphia, the trainer belittles him by giving him the nickname “Hollywood”. Even after proving his toughness with a solid victory against a hardened Philadelphia fighter, Donny still faces the challenge of earning the name Creed. Another key plotline is that of the old hero, Rocky Balboa. Rocky has finally hung up the gloves and is even reluctant to enter a boxing gym before Donny is able to convince him to become a trainer. Seeing the Italian Stallion so beaten down is quite sobering, but it confronts an actuality that the previous “Rocky” film, “Rocky Balboa” vehemently denied.
“Creed” excels under the direction of Ryan Coogler, who has worked with Michael B. Jordan before on the film "Fruitvale Station". Some of the most exhilarating shots in the film come in the big fight with Conlan. Instead of randomly circling the fighters, Coogler sets the camera over the shoulder of the man with the upper hand in the fight. It goes from Conlan to Donny and back again throughout much of the boxing match. In "Creed" the ring feels more brutal than in previous "Rocky" films, with shots of blood splashing the mat and deep gashes being sealed up. The streets of Philadelphia also come to life in a way that showcases the reality of the city. There are scenes with dirt biker gang’s in the road; in another scene Bianca takes Donny to a local cheesesteak dive. Without romanticizing anything Coogler manages to bring authenticity to the story. Knowing the grit of the streets and the brutality of the ring is crucial for Donny to become a Creed. It is also necessary to the viewer in order to be fully immersed in the story.
The weaker points of "Creed" are in the storylines involving his mother and his girlfriend. Rashad gets maybe ten lines as Mary Anne Creed, and she essentially disappears after the first scene only to return when watching the big fight from her home in L.A. Bianca also feels dispensable to the story. Even though her character is intriguing, she doesn't add to Donny's character like Adrian (Talia Shire) did for Rocky in the first film. She basically serves as the token love interest and little else. While both of these roles were convenient for the story, their lack of purpose takes away from the final product.
Despite a relatively long run time of 133 minutes “Creed” keeps an impressive pace. The film builds steady momentum and the final fight is truly thrilling. In an ending scene that is both original and sentimental, “Creed” finishes on very strong footing in lieu of a few missteps here and there along the way. While "Creed" is not necessarily anything new, it manages to shake up an age-old story enough to bring new sparks to the narrative. With a powerful soundtrack and convincing performances from both Jordan and Stallone, "Creed" is a winner, even if by split decision.