"Creed" Stands Toe To Toe With Best "Rocky" Sequels

A caution to those reading in 1985: “Rocky IV” spoilers run rampant below.

“Creed” – part “Rocky” spinoff, reboot, and remake – hinges on Apollo Creed’s 1985 death in the ring at the hands of Russian jackhammer Ivan Drago, a curiously dark moment in an otherwise preposterously goofy ode to 80s excess. Even though it’s certainly the only death scene in movie history to follow an ultra-flamboyant James Brown musical performance, it remains devastating for anyone with an attachment to the series.

Apollo (Carl Weathers) had made the unlikely transition from unbeatable foe (“Rocky”) to beatable foe (“Rocky II”) to training montage buddy (“Rocky III”), rendering his demise both unexpected and traumatizing, putting not just Apollo’s legacy on Rocky Balboa’s back, but America’s! By the time the Italian Stallion launched the punch that would flatten the Soviet behemoth, it seemed that freedom itself hung in the balance.

Thirty years and two films of varying quality later, Hollywood has done what Hollywood does, inventing an illegitimate son for the long-buried Apollo and shepherding Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) into the crotchety old trainer role once filled by Burgess Meredith as Mickey Goldmill. It’s an outwardly savvy move, but one that could have easily imploded. Thanks to “Fruitvale Station” writer-director Ryan Coogler, it doesn’t. Au contraire.

Michael B. Jordan – also of “Fruitvale Station” fame and more recently Fox’s ill-fated “Fantastic Four” resurrection – stars as Adonis “Donny” Creed, longtime casualty of the American foster care system.

The picture begins in 1998 with Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, the third actress to play the role) showing up at a juvenile detention center, soon to take in her late husband’s troubled son. The adolescent bears the same bloody knuckles and knowing smirk as his father, but without the same rudder.

Coogler’s script (co-written by Aaron Covington) then jumps to the present day, Adonis doing an office job but still wanting to fight. Someone. Anyone.

What follows is in essence a redo of the 1976 original, but fluently adapted to 2015. It’s the kind of rehash that absolutely no one will mind, held back by a few logical leaps but otherwise a living, breathing “Rocky” film that effortlessly recaptures plenty of that old magic. Stallone slipping back into his signature role like a comfy, old pair of mitts is just one of the movie’s many pleasures.

Through and through, Coogler and company get the essence of “Rocky,” from the Italian Stallion’s rambling, close-mouthed monologues to the woodwind and horn-based score to the cornball montages. It’s modern but homey and deeply affectionate, and the photography of Philadelphia is the best the city has ever looked on film.

If Sly remains the heart of the saga, Michael B. Jordan is a similarly warm, likable screen presence, and his rapport with Stallone is as temperate as Stallone’s was with Meredith. Although it’s hard to believe Donny’s leap from nobody boxer who refuses his father’s name to heavyweight contender (the screenplay clumsily jumps from his first fight to his title shot), Jordan imbues the character with a quiet intensity that makes the journey seem that much more plausible.

Interestingly, the 28 year-old actor is playing slightly older than he is – a position afforded to few actors his age – making Donny’s mix of worldliness and naivety come off as natural instead of manufactured. We don’t root for him because we’re supposed to. We root for him because we want to.

And Tessa Thompson (“Dear White People”) is equally wonderful as Bianca, Donny’s neighbor-turned-girlfriend, a pretty thin, thankless role that depends on a strong performer to make it work. Thompson is, and she does.

If there’s a flaw in Coogler’s approach, it’s that outcome of the final fight doesn’t feel nearly as important or immediate as it did in “Rocky” or even “Rocky II.” Of course we don’t want to see Donny get embarrassed – the likely outcome considering the power and prestige of his opponent (played by real-life boxer Tony Bellew) – but it feels like his life will be fine no matter the outcome. This wasn’t the case for working class oaf Robert “Rocky” Balboa, whose entire existence seemed to hinge on his matches with Apollo.

But the script’s middling stakes are far from a dealbreaker because we’re rooting for Rocky as much as we are Donny – a remarkable feat considering we’ve been through the wringer with him a full six times before and just as willingly jump back in. And it’s as draining and invigorating and rewarding as ever.

“Creed” is a significant step up from the solid but hardly exceptional “Fruitvale Station,” a good sign for both Coogler and audiences hoping for big things from him. If “Creed” is any indication, the 29 year-old is more than just a burgeoning talent – he’s about to arrive. If he hasn’t already.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 25, 2015
Studio: MGM, Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriter: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Bellew
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, language and some sensuality)