Review: ‘Creed’ Takes First Round of a New Legacy

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) in "Creed."

And the Victory Goes to ‘Creed’

Ever since capturing the Best Picture Oscar in 1977, the Rocky franchise hasn’t been able to match the original pound for pound. Consistency has never been one of the series’ strongest points. But with its latest installment Creed, the opportunity to retool a near 40-year-old franchise is ever present.

While still part of the Rocky mythos, Creed isn’t exactly the seventh film in the series, rather a spin-off featuring plenty of new blood with a by-the-numbers underdog story. Nearly a decade has passed since the events of Rocky Balboa. Sylvester Stallone’s Italian Stallion is getting up in age, assuming the role of mentor and legend in the streets of Philadelphia. One day, a young man, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) enters his restaurant, who appears to know quite a bit about Balboa and his battles in the 70s with fellow boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

It turns out Johnson is in turn Creed’s illegitimate son from before he died in Rocky IV. Donnie’s had a rough childhood, bouncing from group home to group home, before being taken in by his stepmother (Phylicia Rashad), who he jumps to conclusions is a social worker at first. Since then, Donnie slowly becomes his father’s son, going undefeated as a boxer in Tijuana and quitting his desk job in LA to pursue his lifelong dream.

Creed boils down to simply a film about legacy. Donnie knows exactly who is, but keeps it under wraps in the Philadelphia circuit. He’s determined to make a name for himself instead of riding daddy’s coat tails. Hence the use of his mother’s maiden name. Even his love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Dear White People) is kept in the dark for a while. Though after time at the Front Street Gym in Philly, other boxers begin to wonder why the legendary Rocky Balboa has taken a keen interest in some random kid from Los Angeles.

Creed is richly directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), who captures the underdog tale with genuine heart and careful precision. The screenplay co-written by Coogler and Aaron Covington never fumbles, though still manages to hit the same beats of the original. Generations new and old can appreciate the road Creed takes.

Jordan and Stallone excel with solid chemistry that packs a punch over and over in the last 90 minutes. But while Stallone (who delivers a heartwarming supporting performance) is still the driving force behind the Rocky franchise, the pressure is on Jordan to carry this film. And yes, he takes it the extra mile. Jordan is by far an underutilized actor, who’s still trying to find his place in Hollywood. In Fruitvale Station, his performance as BART victim Oscar Grant was mesmerizing to say the least. And now in this second collaboration with Coogler, lightning has struck twice. As Creed’s son, he nails the complexity of the character, struggling with anger issues while trying to prove his worth. This is the type of franchise Jordan must headline, not the short-lived Fantastic Four reboot earlier this summer. For his iteration of The Human Torch – flame off!

Like so many age-old franchises sparking new life this year, Creed runs the gambit of paying heavy homage to previous installments. Jurassic World, Spectre and pretty soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens are all guilty of the nostalgia. Creed is no exception, breaking out a modded version of the 1976 score and even a trip outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Composer Ludwig Goransson (Fruitvale Station) does a fine job, blending old with the new. It’s a common theme in general with Creed.

The only real issue with Creed is with its lack of an memorable adversary. Who could forget Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago? Donnie’s ultimate challenge is an undefeated Irish powerhouse (Tony Bellew) and his handler (Graham McTavish, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). The screenplay just doesn’t dig deep enough to warrant any importance, rather being his first main hurdle on the main circuit. The climax does tread on being a rehash in previous Rocky fashion.

That doesn’t hold Creed back from being a triumphant and entertaining knockout. This new installment heralds a return to the days where the Rocky franchise was still young and full of energy. Think of it more as a monumentous passing of the torch, because Jordan’s Creed is just getting warmed up.

GRADE: A- (9/10)

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