All the way back in 1976 Sylvester Stallone created one of the best-loved fictional sports heroes in the history of cinema – Rocky Balboa. In the ensuing 40 years, the beloved Italian Stallion made five more appearances on the silver screen, and while I enjoyed all of them, the final two films in the series really suffered from the absence of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Of course all Rocky fans know that Apollo died in Rocky’s arms after enduring a brutal beating at the hands of Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in “Rocky IV.”
After “Rocky Balboa” in 2006 didn’t really measure up to the other films in the series, it appeared that the champ was finally down for the count, and the saga was over. But legends die hard, and Stallone has resurrected Rocky in “Creed,” a highly entertaining new film that extends the relationship between Rocky and Apollo in a most unexpected way.
The film begins in 1998, when we meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, a belligerent boy living in a Los Angeles youth facility. Donnie has a huge chip on his shoulder, he’s constantly getting into fights, and he’s confused and very unhappy. But his life changes for the better one day when a woman named Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) comes to see him.
Now it just so happens that Mary Anne is Apollo Creed’s very wealthy widow, and it also just so happens that Donnie is the result of an extramarital affair Apollo had. Mary Anne generously takes Donnie home to her spacious mansion, which the lad finds much more appealing than the orphanage.
When we jump ahead 17 years, we find Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) gainfully employed in a financial firm, but despite having a good job and an opulent roof over his head, he’s dissatisfied with his life. Boxing is in his blood, and he quits his job to become a fighter. To this end he applies to a get into a ritzy Los Angeles boxing school, but he’s rejected.
After a blow like this, a lesser man may have given up on the dream, but remember that Donnie is a fighter, and his next step is a trip to Philadelphia, where he locates his dad’s old buddy Rocky, who owns and operates an Italian restaurant appropriately named “Adrian’s.” Donnie introduces himself and asks Rocky to be his trainer, and of course the former champ declines before finally changing his mind.
And the rest is history!
Those who saw the first “Rocky” will recognize that “Creed” is simply an updated version of exactly the same plot, but what makes the film fresh is that we get to see Rocky as a trainer instead of as a fighter. And this movie proves that Rocky Balboa remains an iconic film character whether he’s inside or outside the ring because Stallone succeeds in making him so appealing. In the film’s production notes Stallone explained what drew him to the film.
“The impression Rocky has left on people is both confounding and extraordinary to me. I’ve always felt a relentless responsibility to keep the character intact because of that. So when Ryan (director Ryan Coogler) came to me with the idea of Adonis Creed coming into the picture, I thought it was incredible, this filmmaker who is so young and yet so captivated by what we’d begun all those years ago. I admit I was intrigued.
“Boxing, probably like most sports, is about 80 percent in your head. You can be defeated before you walk out of the dressing room. That’s why a good corner man has to be a psychoanalyst, right on the spot. He’s got to hold his guy together. It’s a pretty extraordinary occupation, and I thought it was a great place for Rocky to go — to take everything he’s known from all his years as a fighter and give it to this kid.”
The young Jordan works very well with Stallone, and there’s a nice chemistry between the two of them. The training scenes are terrific, and there is one where Rocky and Donnie are standing side by side working on the speed bags; it’s absolutely mesmerizing.
Until Donnie meets Rocky, he’s pretty much of a lost soul, and he’s also struggling with the baggage of being an illegitimate child. In the production notes Jordan offered an interesting analysis of his character.
“Mary Anne gave him stability, pushed him toward a better life, a greater understanding of the world. But he still has a hole he’s trying to fill inside, and he’s trying to figure it out. When he’s boxing, things make sense. He feels alive. It feels right.
“There’s a weight that comes along with that (being an illegitimate son). He wants to hide that part of himself. He hasn’t learned that until you embrace all the parts of yourself, you can’t grow and discover who you are. Part of his journey is to accept what he’s thought of as an embarrassment for a really long time.”
As I watched Donnie go through his training (including trying to catch a chicken), I kept thinking back to the original film and remembering how I got chills when Rocky made his run through the Philadelphia streets with that incomparable theme song playing in the background. Yes, Donnie makes an obligatory training run, but it’s not in the same galaxy as the ones in early films of the saga.
All things considered, the best parts of “Creed” are the fight scenes because they are so well choreographed and filmed that they are incredibly realistic. And Donnie’s final fight at the end of the movie does indeed pay sufficient homage to Rocky’s two legendary brawls with Apollo.
The bottom line here is that “Creed” is a very good movie, but it’s not a great one. I probably never will watch it again, whereas I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve watch the early films in the series. “Creed” just did not grab me emotionally as those movies did, and therefore it earns the final score of a standing eight count. And I really hope there’s not a “Creed II” in works.