I’m not sure what it says about the state of modern boxing that Rocky Balboa is still the most famous American fighter and he’s not real. The Italian Stallion is of course Sylvester Stallone – a man with 6-movies under his belt, a statue in Philadelphia and a myth as big as his ego. It’s incredible that after all these years there is still something left in the Rocky well in 2015. But miraculously we have Creed, that not only stands as one of the best Rocky-verse films ever made but may leap directly into the Best Picture conversation by years end.
I know, I’m surprised too. Even as I was being enveloped by Adonis Johnson’s (Michael B. Jordan) final bout of the film, hooting and hollering with the rest of the audience I couldn’t believe how rousing Creed was. It takes the best the boxing genre has to offer and distills it into a powerful story about forging your own path, climbing out of the shadow of the great’s who have come before and finding your true potential. Sure it has that layer of cheese on it that Rocky I & II had but it also has the brash confidence too.
Judging by the title I’m guessing you know who this is about. Adonis Johnson is a young kid jumping from foster homes to juvenile detention. His Father died before his birth and his mother gave him up. Adonis isn’t a bad kid he just has no prospects. He ends arguments by beating kids senseless and spends more time with himself than anyone at that age would care to. It’s not until a woman comes to visit him that his prospects begin to change. She didn’t just know his father, she was his wife, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad.) Mary Anne takes Adonis from the jaws of the state to raise him at her home. Being married to one of the greatest fighters in history left her with quite the nest egg and overnight Adonis goes from penniless to wealthy L.A. suburbanite.
Flash forward 14-years and seemingly not much has changed. Instead of beating up his peers Adonis now sneaks down to Tijuana to fight in the ring after hours. He’s self-taught but has a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove he can make it without the name Apollo Creed ever present above him. We get a glimpse at his day job as some sort of fast-rising financial planner. But on the day of his promotion he quits – moving to Philadelphia to chase his dream of being a champion.
Why Philly? Well the legend lives there of course. Behind the counter at Adrian’s Café Rocky is toiling away, living a quiet life. Rock has left boxing behind but Adonis knows the only way to break out of his Father’s shadow is to confront it. Who better to help him than one of the few who bested him, one of the few that truly knew him?
Even after Rocky learns what bloodline Adonis comes from he’s hesitant. It’s a world he thought he’d left behind. The city clearly still reveres him but after so much loss it’s hard to hide the resentment. But Adonis is persistent, breaking down that old, hardened exterior. He begins training at Rocky’s old gym, just by himself to stay sharp. He stops by the café daily – as a reminder. He even starts calling Rocky Unk – after all they are family.
When Rocky caves Creed absolutely flies. The training sequences are convincing and thrilling. It’s nostalgic but never navel-gazing. When Adonis starts dating Bianca (Tessa Thompson,) a musician in his building, Rocky is there to keep him honest. “Don’t let her make your legs weak,” he tells him. Eventually Adonis moves into Rocky’s house so the focus can shift to training 24/7. Their father/son bond is central and wonderfully developed.
Director Ryan Coogler, working on only his second film, gives Creed a confident sense of the past while forging a fully realized modern world. He pays homage to the film’s lineage in many ways (from Adonis’ red, white and blue trunks to the original theme music) but make no mistake this is Creed’s world. He feeds off Michael B. Jordan’s cocky but unsure energy that creates a kinetic momentum which rarely allows for reprieve. And his boxing scenes are scorching as his camera seemingly never stops swirling around the fighters (in Adonis’ first bout the camera never cuts, a beautiful, lengthy shot that is expertly choreographed.)
And let the chorus start now, Sylvester Stallone is fantastic. You will be hearing his name a lot come awards season and while it may be a legacy discussion for Sly it is fully deserved. His Rocky is tired and beaten down and Sly realizes the depth here. He’s haunted by the failings of his past and the people he’s lost (yo, Adrian.) It’s not until a young upstart from L.A. starts asking questions that the fire is lit again. It’s an emotional performance that removes all vanity and ego, something I never thought I’d say about this particular film legend.
Now, if only we can remove the decades of corruption in real life maybe boxing can once again regain its crown. But for now, at least we have Rocky constantly reminding Adonis, “One step, one punch, one round kid.”