Boxing is a sport that has lent itself to film better than any other. While the “sweet science” has existed in cinema for more than a century, starting as far back as Veriscope’s “Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight” from 1897, for all intents and purposes the lifeblood of the boxing film started the same year as America celebrated its bicentennial. The release of “Rocky” in 1976 came during one of the golden age eras of cinema, and its historical context is there on the screen if you’re willing to look beyond the tropes that would become commonplace in future boxing films.
An underdog movie at its finest, “Rocky” also offered love, romance and redemption. The other Rockys would lose sight, going through the motions as the Italian Stallion battled the likes of Mr. T and the Soviet Union. Thirty years and five sequels later Sylvester Stallone left the ring for good in “Rocky Balboa,” a fitting swan song for his most beloved character.
But now he’s back in “Creed.” Is this the seventh “Rocky” movie or the franchise spin-off we didn’t think we needed? Both.
“Creed” is not a simple attempt at rejuvenating a franchise for just one more round. That’s on account of writer-director Ryan Coogler, who gets his first crack at a studio picture after putting Hollywood on notice a few years ago with his debut “Fruitvale Station.”
Selling point: What if Apollo Creed had a son who grew up to be a fighter like his old man?
As the story goes, Apollo Creed, Rocky’s old nemesis turned best friend, had a son out of wedlock who grows up a product of the Los Angeles foster care system. Opening in flashback, the year is 1998 and twelve-year-old Adonis Johnson has to be separated from the rest of the kids in juvy. He is visited by a woman he presumes is a social worker, but she reveals details that causes Adonis to unclench his scraped knuckles and soften. The woman is Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). When the young man asks what was his name – about his father – the screen goes black and a singular title, big and bold, fills the screen.
Eighteen years later, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) is living in the Creed family mansion while driving down to Tijuana, Mex. to fight in underground boxing matches. Eventually, he quits his suit-and-tie job and looks to making it as a pugilist, much to Mary Anne’s dismay, her husband the victim of a fatal boxing exhibition match in the mid-’80s. She has seen what the sport does, recounting the times she had to help Apollo to the bedroom and bathroom for he was too punch drunk after a fight to walk or wipe without assistance.
Adonis leaves L.A. and heads to Philadelphia to find his father’s friend Rocky Balboa, who still runs the restaurant Adrian’s, named after his late wife. Adonis wants Rocky for a trainer but the Italian Stallion is reluctant. As he should be. Boxing took him from rags to riches to losing all those he held dear. Trainer Mickey. Friends Apollo and Paulie. Wife Adrian. Even his son is out of the picture, living in Vancouver with his wife.
Formula dictates the foreseeable: Rocky trains Adonis in preparation for a big fight. Coogler accepts the formula but counters rope-a-doping the audience into a boxing movie that spends more time in developing characters and relationships than actual boxing. We have Rocky and Adonis, and then there’s Adonis’ romance with the musician that lives in the apartment below his, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Their relationship is more than a simple meet-cute. When the romance goes through the movements of hitting an impasse and later rekindled, it doesn’t feel forced on account of the pairing of Jordan and Thompson.
Nine years ago, “Rocky Balboa” established the credo about life and that “nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.” The goal is to keep moving forward. But when a medical condition arises in “Creed” that forces Rocky to take account of his life and what it has amounted to, this is when the film is its most powerful. A solemn reminder that icons are more than aspirations of greatness. They are humans, impenetrable. Rocky is ready to throw in the towel on life. He’s tired of being alone. He misses his friends. He misses Adrian.
The role reversal that occurs, first with Michael B. Jordan as star and Sylvester Stallone supporting, then with Adonis pushing Rocky to fight his disease, provides a rewarding payoff. The weight of their story defines the film as a whole. There’s the build-up to Adonis fighting a British champ (Tony Bellew), but we’ve seen it all before. Nevertheless, Coogler shows his ability as a storyteller by reveling in the cliches we’ve come accustomed to seeing.
Audiences may not go for the character stuff, the stuff that makes “Creed” not just a quality boxing movie but a quality film period. But if it is boxing they are after, Coogler shows his savvy in the way he approaches each fight. Maryse Albert, who photographed also photographed Darren Arronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” gives an identity to the three fights Adonis has, going from underground to the main event.
By the time the final bell is rung “Creed” shows that it’s more than a contender; this is a damn good boxing movie that forges its own identity while paying respect to Rocky’s legacy. Michael B. Jordan continues to show that he’s a star on the rise and Sylvester Stallone surprises in his supporting turn, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
As one of the Blu-ray release highlights for the month of March 2016, “Creed” sports impressive audio and visuals for home entertainment. The supplemental package contains a few goodies, mostly EPK-style featurettes revolving around the history of the Rocky character and the transition to Adonis Creed (“Know the Past, Own the Future”) and Michael B. Jordan’s training to become a boxer (“Becoming Adonis”). Beyond these two extras is a set of deleted scenes that were wisely excised from the finished product as they are mostly padding and unnecessary to the story overall.