Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Graham McTavish
Runtime: 2 hrs 13 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Warner Bros
Official Website: http://creedthemovie.com/
Opening Day: 26 November 2015
Synopsis: Adonis Johnson (Jordan) never knew his famous father, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who died before he was born. Still, there's no denying that boxing is in his blood, so Adonis heads to Philadelphia, the site of Apollo Creed's legendary match with a tough upstart named Rocky Balboa. Once in the City of Brotherly Love, Adonis tracks Rocky (Stallone) down and asks him to be his trainer. Despite his insistence that he is out of the fight game for good, Rocky sees in Adonis the strength and determination he had known in Apollo - the fierce rival who became his closest friend. Agreeing to take him on, Rocky trains the young fighter, even as the former champ is battling an opponent more deadly than any he faced in the ring. With Rocky in his corner, it isn't long before Adonis gets his own shot at the title...but can he develop not only the drive but also the heart of a true fighter, in time to get into the ring?
No one expects Sylvester Stallone to step into the ring at this age and deliver a knockout the way he did to his fearsome Russian opponent Ivan Drago in ‘Rocky IV’ thirty years ago, but rather than make ardent fans endure the possible ignominy of a reboot, ‘Creed’ finds a way to honour and preserve Stallone’s legacy while advancing the series for a new generation of audiences. And so though Stallone reprises his role as the working-class hero Rocky Balboa from Philly, he does not throw a single punch against a fellow opponent; instead, like what his fierce rival and later on best pal Apollo Creed did for him back in ‘Rocky III’, Stallone plays trainer to Adonis Creed (called Donnie), the illegitimate son of Apollo who is now grown-up and is wearing his abandonment issues on his sleeve.
Though Rocky was thrust into boxing as a means of proving his self-worth, the fundamental conceit of ‘Creed’ lies in the fact that boxing is in Donnie’s blood due to his lineage, which is why after juggling between an office job and black-market prize fights in Tijuana, Donnie decides to quit the former to pursue boxing full-time. That calling brings Donnie from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, where he seeks out his father’s one-time fiercest opponent Rocky to be his trainer. This is the first time in close to a decade that we are seeing the Italian stallion (after the sendoff that was ‘Rocky Balboa’ back in 2006), and the years since have left the former boxing hero alone and weary following the death of his wife Adrian and his best pal Paulie. Yet it isn’t any secret that, despite some initial reluctance, Rocky eventually agrees to train Donnie, part out of love for the young man’s father and part out of an inextinguishable desire to get back into the game.
In the same way, ‘Creed’ makes no bones about reworking the classic Rocky formula – like the old Rocky, Donnie is an unproven underdog who finds himself way out of his depth. Indeed, his first live match is with Leo “The Lion” Sporino (played by real-life boxer Gabriel Rosado) – the #4 ranked light heavyweight in the world, with an impressive 17-0-0 record and 12 wins by knockout – and his next and last one in the movie is with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by another professional boxer named Anthony Bellew) – the Lineal Light Heavyweight title holder and undefeated best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, with a record of 36-0-0 and 28 wins by knockout. Right down to the final outcome of the Creed vs Conlan match-up, those who have seen the original will surely recognise some familiar story beats.
Even so, Donnie is both a similar as well as a different character from Rocky, the latter of which is beautifully drawn out here in his mental anguish boxing under a nom de guerre versus his father’s name, for fear of being called a fraud – or in the character’s own words, “a fake Creed”. Donnie’s struggle to step out of the shadows of a father that he never knew gives newfound meaning and poignancy to his own classic ‘Rocky’ moment in front of the mirror, as Rocky tells him to look at his own image which will be the greatest opponent he will ever fight in and out of the ring. Besides the sport, Donnie also finds his bearing with the help of his downstairs neighbour Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a no-nonsense avant-garde musician coping with a degenerative hearing problem that forces her to wear hearing aids. That Donnie gets a love interest isn’t so surprising, but his scenes with Bianca are surprisingly affecting, largely because the latter is, in her determination and resolve, very much her own person.
True to its title therefore, this is Donnie’s story, but that doesn’t mean Rocky is no more than a glorified sideshow. Slowly but surely, the film coaxes a moving mentor-mentee relationship between the pair, beginning with Rocky’s tough but tender training shown in more than one montage, to their scenes at the dinner table together after Donnie moves in with Rocky, and to the words of encouragement that Rocky speaks to Donnie in between round after punishing round. In particular, that familial bond pays off tremendously with a melodramatic twist midway into the story that makes it as much Donnie’s fight from that point on as it is Rocky’s. Most admirable is how their relationship is never painted in cliché – such as pitting Rocky’s prudence against Donnie’s zealousness – and even without ever hinting at such an association, one gets the distinct sense by the halfway mark that Rocky has become no less than a father figure to Donnie.
That the relationship between Rocky and Adonis proves so poignant is also in large part due to Michael B. Jordan and Stallone’s committed performances. There is equal parts brashness and vulnerability in Jordan’s underplaying of the titular character, who during the course of the film comes to terms with his own anger as well as his past. Jordan is nicely complemented by what has to be one of Stallone’s most nuanced acting ever, shedding his usual macho image as well as that of the character to play Rocky at his most fragile. Having created and shaped the character from the very first movie, Stallone knows Rocky like the back of his hand, but even so, fans will be both surprised and moved by how much pathos the 69-year-old actor brings to his latest rendition of one of his most iconic roles.
No ‘Rocky’ movie is complete without at least one thrilling fight, and ‘Creed’ delivers two knockout ones. The first unfolds over the course of one single unbroken take impressively shot by Maryse Alberti (who also shot ‘The Wrestler’), with the steadicam circling in and around the boxers who execute their moves and movements with breathtaking precision; and the second, which sees Donnie slip on a familiar pair of star-spangled trunks, is a combination of elegantly choreographed long takes and virtuosic editing, all the way to a rousing finish that manages to weave in Bill Conti’s triumphant theme into an already propulsive score from Ludwig Goransson. Even though Donnie’s time spent fighting makes up for less than a quarter of the movie’s two-and-a-quarter-hour runtime, it is the character drama beforehand that makes these fights all the more thrilling and emotionally engaging.
With such assured and confident direction, it’s hard to tell that ‘Creed’ is only Ryan Coogler’s sophomore feature film after the Sundance award-winning favourite ‘Fruitvale Station’. It is as promising a transition into big-budget studio filmmaking as can be, not least for the fact that his film is not only compelling in itself but one worthy of standing amidst a rich legacy of six predecessors. As Rocky makes his way up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the closing sequence, there is no doubt that Coogler has deftly bridged the old and the new to create a film that stands not in shadow of its past but one that lives up to its own ‘Creed’.
(Thrilling, emotional and uplifting, this ‘Rocky’ spinoff doesn’t just bask in the shadow of its predecessors; it stands and triumphs by its own ‘Creed’)
Review by Gabriel Chong