Like many people, I was ready to give up on the ROCKY franchise after watching the fourth installment in the series. Aptly named ROCKY IV, the franchise was tired and on life support. (Think about it.) Hollywood, however, ignored the audience’s prognosis and came out with two more films before dropping the Roman numerals and retiring the pugilist for good in 2006. (To be fair, ROCKY BALBOA – the sixth ROCKY film – wasn’t half bad.)
Nostalgia and Hollywood being what they are, though, it was only a matter of time before ROCKY was resurrected off the mat. But how to properly bring back a character who first came to life 40 years ago? Fortunately, our memories are just as shaky as Rocky’s. If you remember ROCKY V (and we’d all like to forget that one), the boxer is on the brink of financial ruin and is suffering from brain damage, the result of too many blows to the head over the years. Now, 26 years later with CREED, both his financial and mental health have vastly improved. His wife, Adrian (Talia Shire), is dead (ROCKY V) and his best friend/brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young), has passed too. His son, Robert Jr. (the late Sage Stallone and Milo Ventimiglia), has moved to Vancouver, distancing himself from his father both in body and in spirit. But he still has his red sauce restaurant named after his beloved. Meanwhile, we learn that Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who died in the ring back in ROCKY IV, was a busy guy when he wasn’t fighting. Though married, he fathered a son with another woman who promptly put the boy up for adoption. As CREED opens, we see the lad pound the bejeezus out of a much bigger boy at a juvenile facility. Through the kindness of a stranger, the young Adonis Johnson gets rescued from the home and grows up in privilege in Los Angeles. Flash forward to the present day and Adonis – now Donnie – is a well-educated, corporate up-and-comer who boxes on weekends in Tijuana. Though his future seems rosy, he decides to throw it all away and move to Philadelphia where he seeks out the one person who can train him to become a professional fighter.
CREED could have been a disaster but it’s not at all. Writer-director Ryan Coogler (FRUITVALE STATION) created a fan service film that respects both the Rocky character and the actor, Sylvester Stallone, who brought him to life. Even more, though, he moved the story forward by introducing new characters that the audience can get behind.
This is not just a Black Rocky. It’s a story about connecting; about finding family where you didn’t think it exists. As Adonis/Donnie, Michael B. Jordan (FANTASTIC FOUR; FRUITVALE STATION) does some of his best work to date. His workout scenes are very reminiscent of the original ROCKY film, though they’re given a modern, inner city hip hop twist. Fear not, though, Bill Conti’s iconic anthem, “Gonna Fly Now”, does poke through but at the right time.
The best thing about CREED is Sylvester Stallone. I can’t believe I just wrote that but it’s true! For the first time since the original ROCKY film, we’re given Stallone, the actor. In CREED, we see Rocky as he should be at this age. The bravado is gone. In its place is a quiet, humble guy who is takes life one day at a time. Stallone’s face, which we know has had plenty of plastic surgery over the years, seems right for this older Rocky. Yes, we can see that he has had work done but the wrinkles are there, too, in full view. Stallone dials the bombast way back and, by doing so, shines. He is being touted to win an Oscar® this year as recognition of his work over the past 40 years but I would say he really deserves the award because of his performance in this film.
Of course, not all is perfect with CREED. The scene with Donnie and the local biker gang seems rather contrived, and the boxing match between Donnie and ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlon (former three-time ABA Heavyweight Champion Tony Bellew) is predictable, both in how it came to be and how it finished up. Jordan apparently did all the boxing shots himself – there was no body double – and he got fairly beaten and bruised when his face was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I never would have thought I would have enjoyed CREED as much as I did. It’s a solid film with great performances all around. The ROCKY franchise lives on to fight another day!
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 40:50.)
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