Zaki's Review: Creed

Director Ryan Coogler's Creed functions as both a sequel to the long-running Rocky series (which marks its fourth decade next year) and the start of its very own franchise. I suspect that the manner in which it's interpreted is entirely dependent on the vintage of whoever happens to be viewing. But either way, what's unmistakeable about the boxing drama starring Michael B. Jordan is the passion that drove the helmer of 2013's Fruitvale Station to pursue this as his follow-up to that acclaimed docudrama.

Far more than merely trading on the nostalgic fuzzies that come from revisiting a beloved movie institution, Creed confidently builds on Rocky's forty years of accumulated good vibes to blaze its own trail, mining a potent vein of raw emotion in the process. Jordan (who also toplined Fruitvale) stars as Adonis "Donnie" Johnson, illegitimate son of deceased former heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (who you may recall met his untimely end after receiving a sustained pummeling at the hands of a giant Russian thirty years ago).

With his mother passing away when he was a child, Adonis spent his early years in foster care before being adopted by Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). And yet, though he grew up in the lap of luxury with a solid education, Donnie is driven by some unquantifiable need to measure up to the legacy of a father he never knew. To this end, he packs up and moves from the Creed mansion in Los Angeles to the mean streets of Philadelphia, seeking aid from the one man who may have known Apollo better than anyone: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, back for his seventh turn as the Italian Stallion).

Convincing the two-time champ to take a chance and train him, Adonis begins to make a rep for himself under the name Donnie "Hollywood" Johnson. But when a press leak reveals the secret of his lineage, a million-to-one shot presents itself in the form of light heavyweight champion "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (real life fighter Tony Bellew), who's willing to take a chance on Donnie as long as he adopts the name of his late father. What follows are two parallel story threads, with Rocky and Donnie each facing very different challenges, relying on one another to overcome them.

Though he's been on the rise for awhile now, I'm confident Creed is the thing that will turn Michael B. Jordan into a household name. The actor (who was previously the best thing about August's misbegotten Fantastic Four reboot) is able to embody equal parts bravado and self-doubt, with a dash of humor mixed in, especially in his interactions with love interest Bianca, an up-and-coming singer played by Tessa Thompson. More impressively, he holds his own opposite one of the most iconic characters of all time, which is no easy task.

Speaking of that, I really need to single out Sly Stallone for the magnificent job he does here. Bear in mind that the last time we saw the Italian Stallion was nine years ago, waving a subtle goodbye to those of us in the audience after proving to himself (and us) that he could go the distance in the ring one last time. If that was to be our final visit with the character, it wasn't a bad farewell at all. As such, you have to give it up to Stallone for hearing Coogler's pitch and willingly subordinating himself in favor of a new lead.

Given the integral part that Rocky played in the actor's own rags-to-riches rise, and how closely he's always held the role (he wrote all six previous films and directed four), it can't have been easy for Stallone to step to the side and (literally) let someone else do the heavy lifting. But Rocky's key supporting role here -- essentially playing the Burgess Meredith "Mickey" part in this new configuration of the franchise -- actually has the effect of investing us even more deeply in his arc.

No longer is this the impossibly chiseled, invincible superhero of sequels past. Instead, decades removed from past glories, Rocky is just a man. Sad and lonely. Time has marched on, and his emotional and physical frailty is pronounced and inescapable. The result is some of the strongest work that Stallone has ever done. The relationship he builds with Jordan feels natural and earned, and culminates in an exchange during the third act that honestly took the wind out of my sails for the way it zeroed in on everything the story is about.

While the script, by Coogler and Aaron Covington, leans heavily on our collective memories of this world to maximize its impact, it never once feels exploitive or cheap. In fact, I think what I loved most about Creed is how it can stand entirely as its own thing, subject entirely to when we happen to enter the story. If you know and love the Rocky saga, this is certainly a continuation of that, but for anyone coming in cold, it's something entirely fresh (though they have an entire set of "prequels" waiting for them should the fancy strike).

Back in 1976, the original Rocky came out of nowhere and found its way to near-universal acclaim. In addition to garnering an armload of Academy Award noms and launching the superstar career of writer-star Sylvester Stallone, it also spawned one of the most popular and enduring franchises in film history. After this many years, perhaps its greatest accomplishment of all is the way it inspired Ryan Coogler to deliver such a resonant, deeply personal work about fathers and sons.

When I discussed the presumed series-capper Rocky Balboa back in '06, I said it presented us with a Rocky who had become "the guest star of his own story." I meant that metaphorically, but little did I know that a decade later it would literally become the case. I can't think of a sideways reinvention of a preexisting brand that's ever attempted what this does, and certainly not one that pulls it off this confidently. Creed is as gritty and grounded as the original Rocky, and it packs an emotional punch that's as powerful as any in the ring. A

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