Review by C.J. Bunce
How often does a franchise include seven films? How often are any of them up to the quality of the original that launched the franchise in the first place? The 1976 surprise hit Rocky was nominated for ten Academy Awards and took Best Picture, Best Director (for John G. Avildson), and Best Editing. In every way Rocky Balboa and Sylvester Stallone have been synonymous ever since. Stallone was nominated for his original screenplay and for best actor. Rocky is the story of an underdog, and Stallone was the mirror of Rocky in real life, proving himself to the world as a wannabe A-list movie star. As the franchise continued, Stallone became an international megastar, with movies like Rambo. Many argue the sequel to Rocky, simply titled Rocky II, is akin to the Godfather 2 or Superman 2, an example of Hollywood crafting a truly worthy sequel. From there critics and audiences diverge: Was Rocky vs. Dolph Lundgren as Drago in Rocky IV up to the adrenaline rush of the boxing rounds in the earlier films? Where does Rocky III fit in? The latest entry in the Rocky series, the reboot and eighth film in the series, Creed, is now streaming on Amazon Prime. If you are looking for an inspirational, feel-good movie, it should be the next movie on your list.
What seems to be unanimous is a drop in quality and excitement beset Rocky V and the sixth film Rocky Balboa. So when Creed was released at the end of 2015, who could have guessed it could be on par with the original? The odds were against its success, much like the character of Adonis “Hollywood” Johnson, the son of the late Apollo Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan in the film. Director Ryan Coogler, born ten years after the original Rocky film, grew up with Stallone’s boxer already part of the national psyche, along with other motivational sports films like Rocky director Avildson’s other unforgettable classic, The Karate Kid. Coogler draws from that film’s sensei Mr. Miyagi in one particularly well played training sequence between Stallone and Jordan. Stallone has played sensei before in the series, but only now, with the actor a real-life wise, elder thespian, does he provide a performance that in some parallel universe garnered him not only an Oscar nomination but a win (Stallone was only the sixth actor twice nomination for playing the same character). The young Jordan is equally superb, holding back when others may take obvious choices with a hot-headed fighter. Coogler’s subtlety is the stuff of great filmmaking, such as editing in musical cues from the original Rocky like a whisper throughout the film, only to release the full weight of Bill Conti’s goosebump inducing theme when it meant the most.
But how can Creed be as good as the original?
Adonis Creed becomes more compelling, more sympathetic, and more endearing than the over-the-top Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers. Although we have seen the mentoring from the best: Burgess Meredith’s Mickey, Weathers’ Apollo, and Burt Young’s Paulie, only now is Rocky the master. He has been through it all and when we watch Stallone we believe he has, too. You hear it in Stallone’s voice and see it in his eyes. Couple Stallone’s finest performance with an underplayed young man with fight in his blood–and heart, thanks to his step mother, expertly played by Phylicia Rashad–and the pieces fall into place.
Reflecting Rocky’s mousy girlfriend/fiancé/wife Adrian is Tessa Thompson’s sweet and strong performance as Adonis’s love interest, a rising singer who is slowly losing her hearing. Between Jordan’s chemistry with Thompson and his chemistry with Stallone’s father figure as he decides whether or not to battle cancer, we begin to believe in this new character and want to cheer him on to victory by the film’s end, echoing Rocky’s emotional arc in the original film. Philadelphia and “street life” plays its own role in Creed. In a unique way this is not Adonis’s city, it’s a borrowed home, and reflects director Coogler stepping into Stallone’s turf to re-ignite the franchise in a new way, respectful to the integrity and spirit of the character’s history.
Keep an eye out for a spectacularly choreographed fight sequence filmed in one take, and the careful and deliberate tempo of Coogler’s editing of the film’s slower, more emotionally dramatic scenes. The makeup work is also exceptional with not only the feat of applying new makeup throughout a single take of a boxing match, but the realistic aging process of Rocky throughout the film.
Stream Creed now on Amazon Prime. It’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD here from Amazon.com. A ninth film in the Rocky series, Creed II, is expected to be announced this year.