Jordan and Stallone form a winning combination in ‘Creed’

Forty years ago, the name Rocky Balboa wove into the fabric of America’s consciousness and solidified its place with a Best Picture Oscar win for “Rocky” in March 1977.    Of course, the kindhearted pugilist played by Sylvester Stallone spurred five sequels from 1979 to 2006, as his name is now synonymous with Rocky.  Now, at 69 years-old, Stallone reprises his most iconic role, but the focus is on a different name, Creed.   Apollo Creed is Rocky’s most famous opponent, and in 2015, Rocky trains Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who happens to be The King of Sting’s son.

This is the seventh Rocky film, and my initial reaction – before seeing it – was: “Wow.  Does the world really need another ‘Rocky’ movie?”

While I thoroughly enjoyed the first three films, I found “Rocky IV” (1985) – and his fight with the monstrous Russian, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) – tiresome and manipulative.  Admittedly, I have not seen the fifth and sixth pictures in the series, so, needless to say, walking into “Creed”, my skepticism reached Round 15.  After experiencing the film, however, I am happy and surprised to report “Creed” is a terrifically entertaining picture with wonderful odes to the past while simultaneously moving forward towards a bright future.

Within the first 10 to 15 minutes of the film, we meet Adonis as an adult in present day Los Angeles.  With a brand new promotion at Smith Boardley Financial Group, Adonis knows success in the business world, but his passion is boxing.   Although Apollo died before Adonis was born, this eager Millennial shadowboxes to video clips from his dad’s fights and wants to follow in his footsteps.  So, Adonis heads to Philadelphia, PA with the hope that one man, Rocky Balboa, can train him for the squared circle.

Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) places Adonis in the gritty streets of the City of Brotherly Love, and soon – after an apprehensive beginning – Rocky shows some fatherly or rather “unclely” love to young Creed and agrees to train him.   Coogler makes some terrific decisions with the story by presenting Rocky and Adonis’ relationship as a positive and loose one.   While Rocky dusts off the cobwebs from his internal boxing training manual, he now has a pupil willing to listen and follow his every word.   They form a reciprocal bond while their age and cultural differences present several light-hearted moments and good feelings for the audience.   For instance, Rocky learns that boxing drills written down on paper can be captured via a cell phone photo and imported to a mysterious “cloud”, and Adonis discovers that his teacher wakes up to 1970’s easy listening blasting on an alarm clock at 5:00am.

The screenplay and Stallone and Jordan’s friendly on-screen chemistry allow the audience to enjoy several “Rocky-isms” while getting acquainted with the apparent heir to the Rocky series.   Adonis even affectionately refers to Rocky as “Unc” for uncle, but their connection is not always handled with kid gloves.   Coogler also includes some trouble between the two.   Although the friction does feel a little mechanical at times, one builds such hope to see Adonis succeed (with Rocky at his side), Coogler makes it easy to buy what Stallone and Jordan are selling.   Tessa Thompson’s character, Bianca, also enters the picture as a friend and potential love interest for Adonis, and they share some quiet and lovely moments.    The film devotes lots of time to build the lead characters’ relationships, and the adequate pacing is refreshing.

Now, with all this talk of training, friendship and love, the movie, of course, does leave plenty of room for boxing matches as well.    I will not divulge the number or the specifics of the fights, but let’s just say the film significantly raises the stakes within a 2 hour 12 minute narrative.   Like any Rocky movie, the fights in the ring offer nonstop action and suspense.   While Adonis clashed with his opponent(s) in the ring, I found myself shifting and jostling in my movie theater seat, and at times sitting on the edge of it.  Jordan looks and moves like a convincing boxer, and Coogler offers some camera angles not typical of any Rocky movie – or any other boxing movie – I have ever seen.  During the matches, Coogler seemingly places his camera just behind, or almost sitting on, the boxers’ shoulders, so the audience has an extremely close and tight peek into each and every punch and block while they circle and fight.

While Creed lands jabs at ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan’s (Tony Bellew) jaw, the close-up camerawork – at times – is nothing short of jaw-dropping.  Coogler’s work within the ring feels truly revolutionary, and I hope that every future boxing movie follows his lead.  While I am on the subject – and perhaps it is unchecked enthusiasm from such an enjoyable cinematic experience – I am looking forward to many future Creed movies.  As mentioned earlier, Rocky movies have lived for 40 years, so perhaps Jordan will put on the gloves through the year 2055.

(Image credits:  Warner Bros. Pictures, MGM;  Trailer credits: Movieclips Trailers)

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