Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: Creed

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ryan Coogler's "Creed" relaunches (sorry, I'm sick of the word reboot) the "Rocky" franchise in a clever way and, in the process, is the second best of the entire series after John G. Avildsen's 1976 Best Picture winner (for the sake of full disclosure, I've never seen "Rocky II," although it's in my Netflix queue). 

In this film, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) takes on a young protegee named Donny Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) - yes, I know, Don Johnson - who, as it turns out, is actually Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of famed boxer and Rocky pal Apollo Creed, who was, if you'll recall, killed in the ring in 1985's "Rocky IV."

Donny, whom we first meet during a stint in juvenile hall in 1998, has been adopted and raised by Apollo's very understanding wife (Phylicia Rashad). As the film opens, Donny is working a nine to five desk job, but sneaking away to fight for money in Mexico on the weekends. But, one day, he quits his job and decides to follow in his father's footsteps, although he goes by the last name Johnson in order to win respect for himself, rather than rely on his pop's legend.

Meanwhile, Rocky is managing a restaurant in Philadelphia and wants no part of the boxing world anymore. Will it surprise you if I tell you that Donny convinces him to become his coach? Yes, there are a number of those scenes of the young boxer training (although no punching of frozen meat), but "Creed" is a film that does not merely play all the same notes as the numerous "Rocky" films that preceded it.

There's a romance between Donny and a young woman named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is losing her hearing but won't give up her dream of being a singer, that remains pretty involving throughout the course of the picture. And Rocky is given some bad news of his own that the filmmakers handle gracefully, rather than through tired cliches.

It also helps that Jordan and Stallone are so well paired. Jordan has long been an actor on the rise - his early work on "The Wire" made me first notice him, but his performance in Coogler's previous film, "Fruitvale Station," proved that he had the goods to be a leading man. 

And Stallone gives one of his best performances to date, one that is continually evolving. Rather than fall back on noticeable characteristics as many recurring cinematic characters tend to do, Coogler and Stallone add some extra depth to the old lug. In fact, this is one of the rare recent franchise films that made me want to see the characters brought back to the screen yet again.

Coogler is a filmmaker to watch. "Fruitvale Station" was a powerful indie film on an important subject and "Creed" proves that he can deliver a major studio film as well. This is one of the holiday season's nicest surprises. I'd highly recommend it.

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