No matter how much you jab, duck, and weave, you can’t punch your way out of a fight against your toughest opponent. So remember, “it ain’t about how hard you can hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Call it Creed, Pacquiao, McGregor, or anything you want — while the perspective may change, the Rocky message remains the same.
Personally, I’d recommend seeing the previous films before watching Creed, but I suppose it’s not absolutely necessary. While the film is not an add-on to the series in the sense that you’d be lost having not seen the previous six films, it goes without saying that the extensive background makes for a richer Creed viewing experience. This richness is particularly evident in Stallone’s portrayal of Balboa, as he really brings the meat-locker tenderizer back to mortality from his mythical heights as Cold War ender and ageless punching bag.
In any event, the latest Rocky installment, Creed, shows us the world through the eyes of Balboa’s biggest-opponent-turned-friend’s son, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan).
Johnson is the son of Apollo Creed as the result of an extramarital affair. Having never met his father, who met his own demise at the hands of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV before Adonis’ birth, and having lost his mother at a young age, Johnson gets put into the child welfare system. As an almost inherited reflex, Johnson proves inclined to his father’s pugilism as he does what he can to survive.
While in a juvenile detention facility, Johnson is found by Apollo’s wife Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) who, surprisingly, raises him as her own son despite any ill feelings (however misplaced) people might expect to be associated with the child of a spouse’s infidelity.
From group homes to a cavernous mansion, Johnson seemed to have found his silver spoon (or at least, that’s how some people came to see him). Spending the second half of his youth with the advantages wealth affords, Johnson graduated from school and landed a good job (behind a desk) at a successful firm. Even still, he spends his nights and weekends sneaking down to Tijuana to box in bars and clubs. The urge to fight that plagued him in his youth never fully left, even if he’s not fully worked out what he’s fighting for.
Despite some skill in the ring, no one at his father’s old gym thinks he’s been through enough to hang with the brawlers that grew up on the streets — again drawing on a series standby that looks can be deceiving. And, if we’re being fair, there’s a bit of a clash considering Johnson can be a hothead at times.
In the face of all the doubters (and even a loving entreaty), Johnson decides he’s going to box full time. He comes to the realization that if he’s going to pursue this properly, he’ll need a good trainer. So he moves to Philadelphia.
Seeking out a man he has never met but has watched for countless hours as he was pounded to a bloody pulp, Johnson goes to Philly to gain mentorship from the former heavyweight champion and friend of his father, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
By this point in his life, Balboa has taken just about every beating imaginable (which, as I mentioned earlier, is part of the fuller picture provided if you’ve seen the entire series). So he resists. He’s done with boxing, even if this kid does happen to be who he claims.
But even as Balboa resists, Johnson persists. First, Johnson casually drops by and helps Balboa, or “Unk” as he calls him (an endearing term short for “uncle”), unload his van, persuading Balboa to give him a few workout drills in the process. Soon enough though, like a river working away on an immovable boulder, Johnson gets Balboa to roll into the gym and then the real fun begins.
As Johnson struggles with training and battles his personal demons, his emotions are further tested when he meets his obnoxiously loud downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Naturally, he can’t stay mad at (or away from) her for long, and, having faced a personal struggle of her own and come to terms, Bianca becomes a tactful counter to Johnson as they fall for each other.
While he slugs it out with hard-hitting competitors in the ring, Johnson ultimately must go toe-to-toe with the toughest opponent he’s ever going to face — the one looking back at him in the mirror.
Jordan is quickly establishing himself as one of today’s best young actors, and his role as Adonis Johnson is certainly one to add to the highlight reel. He brings just the right amount of measured intensity and insecurity to the character, and I was impressed with the total transformation. Obviously, Jordan got absolutely yoked for the role as well, and it has since been revealed by a social media post from Stallone that Jordan can take an actual punch like a champ (which explains why that particular scene looked so real).
While on the topic, I thought it worth noting that both ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) and Leo ‘The Lion’ Sporino (Gabe Rosado) are played by professional boxers, so you know any punches Jordan did take definitely landed.
Praise has been coming in for Stallone in his reprisal of Balboa, and deservedly so. On the outside of the ring looking in for once, it feels like Balboa has nothing more to give — both physically and emotionally — which is perfectly captured by Stallone. Of course, Sly’s still Rocky, so don’t count him down and out just yet.
Thompson and Rashad are great in supporting roles, helping Jordan come full circle as much as their characters do for Johnson. Wood Harris also has a small role in the film, which I feel the need to point out if for no other reason than because I’m a fan.
Creed does well to avoid many of the corny, cliché jokes that could have inundated this seventh film in the series, while still using the history to its advantage with iconic snippets — bits of “Gonna Fly Now” and “Going The Distance,” the run through the street, chasing the chickens (which have gotten slower, according to Balboa), etc.
Even if it has been covered nearly ad nauseum, I’d be remiss not to mention that director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) has a ridiculous one-take scene from Johnson’s first fight under Balboa’s tutelage that’ll leave your head spinning. It’s fluid and intimate, circling from fighter to fighter much like an actual boxer in the ring. Coogler has definitely made his way onto everyone’s radar as an up-and-coming director, and I’m excited to see what he creates next.
I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far into the post without really mentioning the soundtrack, but obviously, as with the rest of the film, it’s pretty tight. Tessa Thompson pulls double duty laying down a couple tracks, which find their way into the film during her character’s performances, and there’s also some great stuff from Future, Nas, and others. For me though, the film’s anthem is “The Fire” by The Roots featuring John Legend. Despite being over five years old, it really encapsulates the drive of everyone in the film.
Lupe Fiasco’s “Prisoner” also gets play in the official trailer, but is left out of the feature and soundtrack (which I found a little surprising).
A complete film that goes the distance, Creed is worth the price of admission.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
US Release: November 25, 2015, MGM, Warner Bros., New Line Cinema