Movie Review: Creed

Dwight Brown | 11/25/2015, 12:30 p.m.
“Why would you pick a fighter’s life if you didn’t have to,” asks the old, retired ex-boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester ...
Michael B. Jordan stars in “Creed.” (Courtesy Photo/Warner Bros.)

— “Why would you pick a fighter’s life if you didn’t have to,” asks the old, retired ex-boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). He would know. The life, it ain’t easy. Yet as he stares into the eyes of Apollo Creed’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), somewhere inside he knows the answer. His reservations and the young man’s unbridled fighting spirit are the push-and-pull that drives this surprisingly compelling film that’s a descendant of Rocky, the highest grossing film of 1976 and winner of an Oscar for Best Picture. Forty years later, a pugilist’s story is still a draw.

Sylvester Stallone has written six Rocky films. The difference with this chapter is that the idea, story and script is the brainchild of the very bright and innovative writer/director Ryan Coogler, who won a bevy of awards for his directing debut Fruitvale Station. The creation of the character Adonis “Creed” Johnson came from a very organic place for Coogler. He’d watched the entire series with his dad. His co-screenwriter Aaron Covington had a similar experience. Together they tapped into the old school formula and gave it a fresh urban twist. They’ve hatched a tale of hope filled with vibrant people, an engaging storyline and dialogue that feels real and understated.

As an orphaned kid, Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) gets busted for fistfights in a Los Angeles juvenile detention center almost daily. One day a mysterious woman, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), comes to visit. He has no idea who she is. He’s shocked when he finds out she was the wife of his father Apollo Creed, and that Adonis was the result of an affair the former boxing champ had with a younger woman. Adonis goes home with Mary Anne. He lives a privileged life in L.A., growing into a young man with opportunities and promotions aplenty at an office job. Yet, something doesn’t feel right.

Against his surrogate mom’s wishes, Adonis heads to Philadelphia. He looks up a friend of his father’s, the slightly washed up ex-world heavyweight champion Rocky Balboa. Rocky has retired; he owns a restaurant. Adonis implores the ex-champ to train him in the sport of boxing. Balboa declines. Adonis wears him down. Meanwhile Adonis has moved into an apartment. He clashes with his noisy downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Dear White People), a singer. After a testy introduction, discord turns into infatuation, friendship and a romance.

Though he’d done some unsanctioned boxing in Tijuana, Mexico, Adonis has more ambition than technique and experience. Regardless, it isn’t long before he has his first legit fight. He wins and is outed as Creed’s son. That notoriety brings him the chance to fight an unbeaten British boxer, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (former three-time ABA Heavyweight Champion Anthony Bellew), who is looking for an easy fight and a big payday. It will be a highly visible match in Liverpool, England. Is the novice ready for the big time?

When the movie opens, there is nothing out of the ordinary, just very everyday stuff. That isn’t by accident. Coogler prefers stark realism to theatrics. That technique is what left audiences weeping during the final credits of Fruitvale Station. It takes time for Adonis to find his way, to sort out the anger he feels as an illegitimate son, to forge a relationship with Bianca and Rocky who become his extended family. He is vexed by the privileges of his birthright. When Mary Anne tells him “You are your father’s son,” he shudders. Later confessing, “I’m afraid of taking on the name and losing.” Bianca steers him to his destiny, “You are Apollo Creed’s son. Use the name it’s yours.”