Creed (2015) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality
Running Time: 133 min.

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Ritchie Coster, Graham McTavish, Andre Ward, Jacob 'Stitch' Duran
Small role: Liev Schreiber, Jim Lampley, Michael Buffer, Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington

Review published November 28, 2015

Adonis Creed and Rocky BalboaI went out on a bit of a limb in proclaiming Fruitvale Station the best film of 2013.  It was the debut film of previously unknown director Ryan Coogler, and yet, no other film moved me to near emotional breakdown like that little-film-that-could. I ranked it above 12 Years a Slave, Her, and all of the other Oscar contenders by taking a stand for a smaller film that didn't even get a wide release in the theaters.  Since then, I've wondered whether my love for that film came from the element of surprise; I had no expectations and it knocked me back.  Now that Ryan Coogler is back with his follow-up in the much more high profile Creed, this would be my chance to really see if the young director is truly worth sticking my neck out as a film critic to praise with a best-of proclamation.  Now with two films under his belt, I'm happy to report that not only is Creed one of the most satisfying films of 2015.  Even if it isn't the very best, it's far better than anyone thought it had a right to be, and it should catapult Coogler to the upper echelon of young directors sought for bigger and better projects today. 

Michael B. Jordan (Fantastic Four, That Awkward Moment) stars as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of former world heavyweight champion boxer Apollo Creed, who died in the ring before he was born, and a woman Creed had an affair with who died while Adonis was a young boy.  Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Rashad, "The Cosby Show") pulls Adonis out of his hard-knock life foster care and juvenile hall to adopt him as her own son, raising Adonis to be a fine young man with a bright future in business.  However, it seems Adonis is his father's son after all, opting to drop out of white-collar life for a chance to prove himself in the ring as a self-taught, up-and-coming pugilist. He goes undefeated as an raw amateur boxer in Mexico before deciding to head out to Philadelphia to seek out the training of Rocky Balboa (Stallone, The Expendables 3), current South Philly restaurateur who was once the boxer who ended Apollo's reign in the ring before they became good friends later in life.

In scenes that likely echo how Coogler courted Stallon to come back and do another film in the series, Rocky is initially reluctant, but soon capitulates to the earnest young man's demands when he sees his talent and determination.  Despite wanting to make it on his own terms as Adonis Johnson (his mother's maiden name), soon word gets out that he's Apollo Creed's son, which opens a huge door of opportunity when the reigning light heavyweight champion from England, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Bellew in his debut), wants one big marquee match-up to give him enough money to survive before he goes off to prison. Long-shot odds for Apollo ratchet up to next to impossible when Rocky is diagnosed with a serious illness that threatens to take the former champ down for the count for good.

Jordan is masterful in his performance Adonis Creed, not only because he looks remarkably like he could be the son of Carl Weathers, but his big heart and bigger ego also will have you doing some double takes as he grows to try to fill his braggadocious father's larger-than-life shoes in the ring. But he's also more well rounded as a character than that, equal parts lover and fighter, which helps us become invested in his attempt to make a name for himself in the ring, and also in his pursuit of the love of a Philadelphia neo-soul musical artist named Bianca (Thompson, Selma), whom he meets in his apartment building.

Not to be outdone, Coogler pulls out a terrific Sylvester Stallone performance, perhaps his best since the original Rocky, inhabiting flawlessly the character he's played more than any other in a way that feels well rounded and absolutely authentic.  He doesn't just act like Rocky Balboa, but he has to act like a regular guy, and on who is aging and ailing -- two things he hasn't done before in his career, and he pulls them both off without a hitch.  This is a real performance he's giving here, and might possibly open him up at this stage of his career as a character actor of note, rather than just an aging action star churning out second-rate shoot-em-ups that remind you of the explosive films of his heyday.  While it's not quite the kind of movie that will draw sure Oscar nods, the seventh film in a formulaic and tumultuous franchise, Stallone's turn here will likely have a few fans throwing out the suggestion of a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

While there are echoes here and there of the original Rocky, like Adonis in the shadow of Apollo, Creed emerges as its own distinct entry in the series, and it's arguably second only to the 1976 original as the best film in the long-running franchise. Creed brings out a new look at the great city of Philadelphia in different ways, beautifully captured by cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Visit), even when it repeats some of the same narrative beats.  But it's not just pretty outside; the fight choreography is stunning, including an amazing first bout in which we're right in the ring along with the battling opponents, viewing a couple of rounds of action in one seemingly seamless take, immediately setting it apart from the countless other great films to capture the sport on the silver screen.  It is very raw, visceral, and real in a way in which every punch landed will have you flinch in your seat from the impact.

Lifelong Rocky series fan Coogler, who also co-wrote the script with first-timer Aaron Covington, breathes such a rich sense of character and authenticity into its time and place that we're more than willing to overlook the necessary story contrivances that go into giving Adonis Creed a title shot with only one official bout in his win column.  You'll likely be so invested in Adonis' story, but will still be surprised to find you are literally on the edge of your seat with your mouth agape during the film's electric finale, as you realize just how well the Rocky series has milked the same formula only for us to fall for it every single time. 

Your heartstrings will be pulled on without shame, to be sure, but when you find a knot in your throat and your fingers digging in to the armrest for the last 25 minutes of Creed, especially when you well up with tears upon the delivery of a specific line of dialogue uttered by Adonis right in the middle of the fight, you'll have to admit the skill by which Coogler, Jordan and Stallone have executed the tried-and-true formula. It's the first Rocky film in which Sylvester Stallone doesn't have a hand in the writing, which further illustrates how well Coogler and Covington have done their homework in this series, as every line uttered by Rocky in the movie feels absolutely real, as if the perfect Rocky-isms are served up like an alley oop for Stallone and he gloriously dunks them with mastery that could only come from a marriage of perfect character writing and an actor who knows Rocky Balboa through and through.

Creed is a masterful formula boxing film, with an assured director at the helm, bolstered by very strong lead performances, and a technical prowess on display in making the movie pop both visually and aurally, both in and out of the ring.  While I could gripe about the movie's length, especially as it showcases a love story that isn't really needed for the overall arc, that romance between Adonis and Bianca feels so natural, with oodles of chemistry between Jordan and Tessa Thompson, I would never dare utter that it should have been taken out, as it humanizes Adonis in a way that just being a boxer with something to prove to himself could never do on its own.

As the seventh film in a franchise that had already outlived its welcome about thirty years ago, it's the kind of movie you'd never expect to be good, much less one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences in mainstream cinema in 2015.  And yet, like both Adonis and Rocky, Creed overcomes overwhelming odds to get in the arena with plenty of other heavyweights of filmdom, and while it's not going to be the undisputed champion on my Best-of-2015 list, the fact that it defies all rational expectations by miraculously going the distance from start to finish as a formidable contender makes it feel like a winner all the same.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo