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Creed (2015)

Round and Round Again

I absolutely recommend Creed as a theatrical experience, but I can't get behind it conceptually. Skepticism abounded when MGM announced its plans for a "Young Apollo Creed" spin-off, starring Michael B. Jordan, with Sylvester Stallone reprising his role as Rocky Balboa. After all, 2006's Rocky Balboa was a touching, rousing send-off for the character, and a marketer's-dream bookend to a five-film franchise that had begun thirty years before. Like the Fast and the Furious and Friday the 13th series, Rocky's alleged "grand finale" proved to be a smashing success--leaving the door just cracked enough to do more with what could only charitably be described as "characters" and "story" at that point. Creed seemed like a calculated, sneaky way to bring about Rocky 7, because it was.

Writers Ryan Coogler (who also directed) and Aaron Covington deliver a formulaic Rocky movie, ticking off all the hallmarks the series has accumulated. Luckily, that formula works ninety percent of the time,* and the studio is judicious enough in its timing that nostalgia often supersedes plot-point recollections. Rocky Balboa was just Rocky I, painted over with a beautiful treatise on the importance of legacy and the cruel nature of time. Creed is Rocky I and Rocky Balboa, with a hungry, amateur boxer setting out to prove that he's legit enough to stand toe to to with the pros; an elderly, retired trainer reluctantly drawn back into the life because he needs to settle some unfinished business with his past; and a really effective meta-narrative about making a name for oneself while toiling in the shadow of an established brand.

Jordan's Adonis Creed is the illegitimate son of Rocky's former rival/best friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Apollo, the former World Heavyweight Champion, died while fighting a cartoon Russian twenty-nine years ago, and Adonis spent much of his childhood bouncing around foster homes and juvenile detention centers. Mrs. Creed (Phylicia Rashad) tracked the boy down and raised him in privilege. As the film kicks into gear, Adonis turns his back on a high-paying corporate job in order to follow in his father's footsteps.

He travels from L.A. to Philly and seeks training tips from Rocky, who is this-time-for-real retired. Rocky turns Adonis down, then changes his mind once he sees how truly committed--

Forget it. You already know how the movie goes. Coogler and Covington leave their mark on the franchise not by changing the formula, but by owning it, tweaking it, and decorating the template with black-culture filligree. This film has an "Adrian" character, a love interest for Creed named Bianca (Tessa Thompson). She's a burgeoning musician with progressive hearing loss who presents a really interesting romantic foil to her cocky, would-be boyfriend. She's a fascinating character for three-fourths of the movie, until the writers reduce her to the ultra-supportive girlfriend who shows up to cheer on her man during the climactic fight. There's nothing wrong with this, per se (especially because Thompson is so damned good in the part) but Bianca is merely a tease of a well-rounded character. Her great purpose, ultimately, is to illustrate Creed's split-personality rejection of and conformity to the Rocky-brand sausage factory.

The movie's Big Bad is a hot-headed thug of a Liverpudlian champion named "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). Following a conviction for some crime I can't remember, he finds himself months away from doing hard time. Thanks to franchise machinations, Adonis lands an HBO fight with Conlan, billed as either a name-maker for one or a glorious career-capper for the other. Conlan is a beast in the ring, and Coogler crafts a brutal twenty-minute climax, wherein both boxers knock the bloody hell out of one another for thirteen rounds. Unlike Rocky villains past, both men have appointments with destiny in that ring, and the personal stakes reminded me (in the best possible way) of Gavin O'Connor's Warrior.

It's no secret that, even though he doesn't step into the ring, Rocky Balboa fights his own monumental battle in Creed. Late in the picture, the Italian Stallion is diagnosed with cancer, and must rely on his student for the strength to carry on. Ironically, the spectre of death brings Stallone to life here, kickstarting the mopey Rocky we dealt with for most of the last picture, and giving Creed (the character and the film) yet another crucial stake. It's not just Rocky that's terminal, it's Rocky--a series whose creative and iconic force is not long for the new century, but whose message of perseverance and belief in self carries eternal relevance on its beefy shoulders. I won't spoil the boxing legend's fate, but the filmmakers add a little something extra to the series' secret sauce, giving Rocky a fitting tribute that's emotional without being manipulative.

Yes, technically, this isn't a Rocky movie. This is Adonis Creed's show, and Jordan goes a long way in creating a character that could absolutely carry fan interest for another forty years. Those who've followed the young actor's career know him as an everyman chameleon, a gifted performer with the supernatural gift of playing variations on the same character--while also playing a wide variety of characters. It's like the anti-Jack Nicholson Effect: whether playing a superhero in Fantastic Four, the troubled-background boyfriend on Parenthood, or a star athlete in Chronicle, Jordan manages to meld his own personality (or what we can discern of it from his roles) with the characters' key uniqueness, resulting in a filmography whose every entry feels at once fresh and familiar.

He's phenomenal in Creed, a powerhouse of damaged emotions and physical perfection that make the whole package feel, at times, like much more than a franchise picture. Adonis' journey isn't just about breaking from Apollo Creed's shadow, it's about finding identity in the pursuit of dreams, and the very real struggle of convincing ourselves that we're worthy of them. In one of the film's most powerfully understated scenes, Rocky tells Adonis--who is boxing himself in a mirror--that Adonis is looking at his most powerful opponent. Everyone else, he says, just needs to get out of the way. As you might expect, Creed ends with a center-ring speech, but this one is more powerful and more revealing than any other we've seen. It's here that Adonis Creed steps to the fore as the torchbearer, and Rocky Balboa takes his honorary place in the corner.

Creed is stirring. It made me cry. But it also made me wonder how much more the film could have been had Coogler not been constrained (or as constrained) by branding. What if Stallone/Rocky never showed up? What if "Apollo Creed" was a tenuous connection that merely laid the groundwork for something wholly original, like a successful version of what Ridley Scott had allegedly planned for Prometheus? Would excising the franchise elements have provided more breathing room for characters like Bianca? Or would audiences have complained that the movie was just an "urban" rip-off of Rocky?

This is a crowd-pleaser, for sure, and I wouldn't mind at all if Jordan stepped back into the ring for another round or two. But it's easier for me to justify Creed than to fully enjoy it. Sign me up for the sequel, which will hopefully open with Adonis placing a pair of well-worn boxing gloves on Rocky's grave before gearing up for the fight of his (own) life.

*You know which one I'm talking about.

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