Before reading any farther, peek at the star rating attached to this review. No, your eyes don’t deceive you. I’ve awarded my highest rating to cowriter/director Ryan Coogler’s cinematic underdog, a series rebirth that also serves as the seventh installment in the Rocky franchise that began in 1976 with John G. Avildsen’s original film.
And Rocky was an original—a drama about a kind-hearted boxer that became so associated with star Sylvester Stallone, it’s easy to forget he wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay. Poke fun at the lesser sequels, but know that Avildsen’s charmer took home three of the 10 Academy Awards it was nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing.
If Creed hits audiences as hard as actor Michael B. Jordan’s punches connect with his opponents onscreen, then this picture could collect its own Oscar gold come February. The preview audience I viewed this crowd-pleaser with were alternately cheering and shedding tears—and I was glassy-eyed and ready to pump my fists right along with them, critical composure be damned.
This is a real testament to Coogler, the 29-year-old who’s following through on the promise he showed in his writing/directing debut, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, the fact-based drama that also featured Jordan in its lead role; one can easily see Jordan becoming the Leonardo DiCaprio to Coogler’s Martin Scorsese. You may scoff at the comparison, but I expect great things from the 28-year-old Jordan, who could finally become a star with this film after surviving this summer’s Fantastic Four, a folly that demonstrates what can happen when a studio loses faith in its filmmaker. Ah, but Creed’s producers (including Stallone and original Rocky producers Irwin Winkler and the late Robert Chartoff) were absolutely correct in green-lighting Coogler’s story idea—and then giving him the berth to make the picture he’d envisioned.
And even Scorsese would appreciate Coogler’s staging of the first major fight sequence, which is captured in one unbroken shot by cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who shot both 1996’s When We Were Kings (Leon Gast’s documentary detailing the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali) and 2008’s The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky’s drama involving another faded pugilist). She unobtrusively moves her steadicam through the action, which has been so well-choreographed and executed by Coogler that I quite literally had to catch my breath at scene’s end. This kid’s got talent.
So does “Hollywood” Donnie Johnson. We’re introduced to the future light heavyweight contender during a prologue set in 1998, when he’s a newly orphaned 12-year-old (played by Alex Henderson) in Los Angeles’ Juvenile Detention Center. He’s visited by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad, bringing warmth to a role originated by Sylvia Meals in the earlier Rocky pictures). She’s here to adopt the illegitimate son of her late husband, a heavyweight champ who was killed in the ring before Donnie was born. Knowing nothing about the man she says was his father, the young boy asks, “What was his name?” Cue the film’s title card.
Yes, his father was Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), and Donnie’s given name is actually—and fittingly—Adonis. And although he never knew the man, he’s followed in Apollo’s footsteps, as we see when the movie jumps to the present and Donnie (now played by Jordan) wins his 15th match in Mexico.
Leaving behind a promising office job in L.A., Donnie heads to Apollo’s hometown of Philadelphia, where he seeks out Rocky Balboa, his father’s best-known opponent—and later best friend. Now nearly 70, the former heavyweight champ still runs the small Italian restaurant named after his beloved late wife Adrian, and Donnie stirs up a lot of old memories in the “Italian Stallion” as he introduces himself—and asks Rocky to train him.
That’s right: Donnie wants Rocky to be his Mickey Goldmill. (Stallone is now the same age Burgess Meredith was when he played Rocky’s salty trainer.) Once you recall that Apollo took over for Mickey after the old man’s death, the symmetry of this proposal makes it seem like the biggest fight will be a battle against the cliches hammered home in the six preceding Rocky films, especially after Donnie falls into a relationship with Bianca (Selma’s Tessa Thompson), a singer suffering from progressive hearing loss.
The young lovers are two sides of the same coin—damaged by fate, both striving to be their best selves for as long as they’re able. Bianca is Donnie’s Adrian, even if their relationship has less weight than the anchor that grounded Avildsen’s ’76 original.
But like Avildsen’s film, Creed features a superb score, this one by Ludwig Göransson, who also served as composer on Fruitvale Station. He subtly nods to Bill Conti’s music in the earlier pictures, creating something new while invoking the past.
It’s a delicate bit of shadowboxing, and no one here handles the punches better than Stallone, whose superb performance as Rocky encompasses the pain of families lost and the transcendence of discovering kin you never knew were there.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Alex Henderson, Ritchie Coster, Gabriel Rosado, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Wood Harris, Andre Ward, Michael Buffer and Phylicia Rashad. Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, based on a story by Coogler and characters by Sylvester Stallone. Directed by Ryan Coogler. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.