In a perfect world, they would never stop making Rocky movies. I picture paradise as sitting down at a movie theater every two to five years and watching the perpetually down-on-his-luck Rocky Balboa face a seemingly unbeatable opponent, only to overcome the insurmountable odds using rugged perseverance and a well-placed montage.
I dare you to find a better movie than the masterful “Rocky IV,” better known as the one with the big-ass Russian. It can’t be done. It has absolutely everything you could ever possibly need from a movie. It’s a revenge flick, a family tragedy, an odd social commentary on the growing reliance on technological advances, an in-your-face metaphor for the uneasy tension between Russia and America after the Cold War and an excuse to watch Sylvester Stallone chop logs and run in the snow with the manliest of manly beards. An absolute perfect film.
Sure, the old Rocky movies are tremendously cheesy in that ’80s sort of way, but they had a lot of heart and knew exactly how to work the audience into a passionate frenzy of oohs and ahhs.
Can you guess the biggest connection between all the Rocky movies? That’s right, all of them were about Rocky. Now with the new spinoff “Creed,” the film series asks the audience to push their obviously unfaltering love for the character of Rocky Balboa to the side and cede the spotlight to someone else. Enter Adonis Johnson, who might be more recognizable to the world as Adonis Creed.
As a new soft reboot/sequel/spinoff hybrid, “Creed” has to accomplish a lot of things. Mainly it has to introduce a new lead character into the Rocky universe, find a proper role for the aging Rocky character and honor what came before it while paving its own path. Thankfully, “Creed” is a knockout of a movie that manages to pack in a lot of stuff with a graceful touch, breezy pace and a few stand-out artistic flourishes.
Anchored by a captivating Michael B. Jordan and a surprisingly effective Sylvester Stallone, up-and-coming writer/director Ryan Coogler delivers a movie that should please long-time fans of the series as well as people who have never heard of “Rocky” before. That’s a difficult thing to do.
Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of boxing legend Apollo Creed. Apollo, of course, perished in the ring at the hands of the aforementioned big-ass Russian, dying before Adonis ever got a chance to meet him. Knowing boxing that is in his blood, Adonis seeks out Rocky Balboa and asks to be trained by the Italian Stallion. Rocky agrees and soon Adonis has a shot at the title, leaving the young man struggling with issues of identity and legacy.
The movie hits the “what’s in a name?” theme hard throughout its runtime, and it delivers a surprisingly poignant story about what it means to make it on your own vs. relying on something else. I don’t know how, but the movie somehow manages to have its cake and eat it too in that regard. “Creed” never picks one side over the other, but manages to weave together a finale that finds the benefits of both sides to create an extremely satisfying conclusion.
It’s also a movie about carrying the past with you. Adonis has to live with a famous name of a man he never knew, and his confusion over the quasi-existential dilemma makes for one of the better character studies of 2015. It’s not just Adonis carrying weight either. Rocky has seen some shit too, man. In the earlier movies, you could have CGI’ed a muscular wooden plank in place of Sylvester Stallone and the Rocky films would still have turned out the same, but something is clearly different this time. Whether it’s the decreased screen time, the exceptional writing or Stallone’s acting abilities, Rocky’s character has finally become interesting.
It’s a career-best for Stallone, as Rocky’s sadness is on full display. He still feels responsible for Apollo’s death and he’s incredibly lonely after the passing of his wife and his best friend. When he gets struck with sickness that could be life-threatening, Rocky would prefer to not fight anymore and just let death come. He needs a reason to keep fighting and Rocky finds his relationship with Adonis to be just as beneficial to him as it is to the young fighter.
Rocky repeats a phrase throughout the movie, saying “one step at a time, one punch at a time, one round at a time.” It motivates Adonis, but also speaks to how delicately crafted this movie is. Everything seems meticulously laid out and logically organized in a way that’s truly astonishing. I wanted to leave the theater screaming about how solid the story structure was to random movie goers, but didn’t want to be kicked out again. I think many reviews out there will highlight the great directing and acting, but I think the way the film is put together deserves some special recognition.
Who am I kidding though, no one cares about that. What’s important is the FINAL FIGHT. All boxing movies end in the ring as we watch our protagonist slowly win out over the typically stronger, meaner antagonist, and “Creed” is no different.
Adonis is up against heavyweight champion Ricky Conlin, and even though he will probably go down as one of the least memorable Rocky villains, Coogler still dedicates a small portion of the movie to Conlin’s very personal motivations, fleshing him out as more of a real human being than other bad guys in the past. It makes for a riveting final fight between the two.
Coogler popped up on people’s radar with his last film, the critically acclaimed “Fruitvale Station” which also starred Michael B. Jordan. He’s still finding his style and experimenting a bit, which is slightly distracting in the film, but everything from his well-placed title cards, to his long, spinning tracking shots, to his use of slow-motion is well done and I can’t wait to see what the director does next. Whatever it is, I’m buying a ticket.
The old Rocky movies will always hold a special place in my heart, even as I recognize how dated they’ve all become. “Creed” is a perfect Rocky movie for 2015 as it captures the spirit of the original while updating it for modern times. It’s a winner in my book and I would love to see a continuation of this series over the next few years. Who knows, maybe “Creed IV” will have Adonis fight aRussian super-soldier and everything will have come full circle. That’s the dream.
Overall Grade: A-