Mark Reviews Movies

CREED

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ryan Coogler

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Ritchie Coster, Graham McTavish

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, language and some sensuality)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 11/25/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 24, 2015

Creed simultaneously serves as a spin-off of and as the sixth sequel in the Rocky series. That the film succeeds in both regards is an accomplishment worthy of a decent amount of praise, but the degree to which it succeeds on both counts is substantial. As a spin-off, it presents us with a character whose story is tangentially connected to the series, but it treats that story as its own, unique entity. As a sequel, it catches us up with the life of the series' primary hero, and even though he plays second fiddle to this new protagonist, the screenplay by director Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington treats his story as an equal of the new kid's.

These two characters come together because of a circumstantial connection, and from there, Coogler and Covington build a deep, symbiotic bond that goes beyond their relationship as fighter and trainer. In their own way, the two characters have equal weight in the film. Their stories inform each other.

Some of that is based in nostalgia for the film's predecessors, but even then, it's the right kind of nostalgia. The film doesn't simply recite pieces of trivia about the previous entries in the franchise to elicit some fond remembrances of those movies (That the film even makes us think somewhat fondly of a few of them is itself an accomplishment). Every call-back has something to say about the here and now of this film, and each one possesses an unexpected tenor of mourning, regret, and pain.

It's not so important, for example, that we finally learn who won the unseen match at the conclusion of Rocky III. What is important is that it brings Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), Apollo Creed's son, just a little bit closer to learning about the father he never knew and that it offers Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) an opportunity to reminisce on the good old days, which he is now convinced are finished for good. Both characters would rather it be the other participant in that fight telling this story to his son, but that is not the way things transpired. Instead, the long-held secret is finally shared by the only living witness, and it arrives in a moment of mutual trust, respect, and grief.

Adonis, who prefers to go by "Donnie," has had a difficult life. He was born as a result of an affair between Apollo, who was killed in the ring before his birth, and Donnie's mother, who died while he was still a child. He went from foster home to foster home, and in the film's prologue, he is in a juvenile detention facility where he regularly gets into (and wins) fights with other kids there. Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) invites the boy to live with her before telling him about his father.

A couple of decades pass, and Donnie has a sensible, well-paying job in Los Angeles. He also goes down to Mexico to box, and he has an undefeated record—each win resulting from a knock-out. He quits his job, moves to Philadelphia, and meets Rocky at the former champion's restaurant, which is named after his late wife, whose grave he routinely visits—sitting in a chair, talking to the plot, and reading the newspaper.

Rocky grudgingly agrees to train Donnie, and the film follows a pattern that will be familiar to anyone who has seen any of the other entries in this franchise (or any sports movie, for that matter). We get the training montages. We see how the work pays off in a match, which Coogler captures in a dazzling one-take that allows us to experience the rhythm of the bout and Donnie's mounting confidence (Just as refreshing is the scene immediately before the fight, in which Donnie's nerves get the better of him). We get the setup to the climactic Big Fight, and of course, we get the payoff to that setup in an extended, brutal bout that has much more at stake than the outcome of the fight (It's so effective that even the annoying, on-the-nose commentary becomes background noise).

It's not the formula that's important here, though. The film may feature boxing, but it's not about the sport.

There's a tender romance that builds between Donnie and his downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who is suffering from degenerative hearing loss. She's tough in her own way, having accepted that she only has a limited about of time to experience her talents. The boxer and the artist complement each other in resilience and, eventually, honesty, although Donnie isn't quick to share his parentage with just anybody. "I'm not just somebody," she says, in a scene that acknowledges and sympathizes with both sides of the argument that arises when word of Donnie's background makes the news.

The bond between Donnie and Rocky is the film's central one, unless we count the lack of a relationship between Donnie and his father as a kind of relationship, too. Early in the film, he watches the second fight between Rocky and Apollo projected on a wall, and he stands in front of the image, shadowboxing the phantom of his father by taking on the role of the man who defeated him. Fathers and sons populate almost every corner of this world. It's as if every trainer was a boxer who now has a son who wants to follow in his father's footsteps. Rocky's own son was following that path but changed his mind.

Donnie and Rocky know exactly what vacant role each is filling for other, and Coogler and Covington know that we're aware of this, too. They don't hit home the point. Coogler allows the performances to say it all, and both Jordan, who delicately balances Donnie's athletic confidence with his emotional vulnerability, and Stallone, whose genuinely affecting performance offers layers of weary depth to one of his most famous characters, are more than equal to the task.

Coogler lets the unspoken say what needs to be said, and it pays off in dividends when these two men finally express what has been driving them. The idea of a single statement from each character summarizing his motive might sound like a cheap, manipulative act, but these lines come at just the right moment—with just the right tone of matter-of-factness. Creed cares about these men as much as they care about each other. That comes through loud and clear, with a gut-punch degree of poignancy.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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