While we’ve been inundated in the past decade with Generation X nostalgia revivals on the silver screen, 2015 may be the very peak of this particular cinematic trend. This past summer saw the return of The Terminator, Jurassic Park and Mad Max to theaters. In fact, it seems strange that the Rocky franchise is the latecomer to this party, as the last film in the series, Rocky Balboa, was released in 2006. At the same time, the Rocky films are arguably the greatest example of how a once respectable franchise quickly gave in to 1980s Reagan era patriotism and excess (see Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films, for instance). However, the franchise is back and standing strong with Creed, a spinoff entry that keeps things fresh while simultaneously shows that the franchise still has some fighting spirit left.
Creed follows the story of Adonis “Creed” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) greatest rival, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Born with his father’s love of fighting, Adonis finds that his life in the corporate structure isn’t fulfilling, and instead, opts to seek out his late father’s former rival and friend and enter into training with him to become a great fighter.
The setup for the film is essentially your standard “underdog rising to the challenge” sports/fighting film that we’ve seen for years, in everything from The Karate Kid to Miracle. However, where Creed finds its own voice is in the way in which it circumvents many of the clichés that are endemic to this genre.
For example, while most films would begin with the protagonist, down on his luck or living in destitution, Adonis is living in the lap of luxury in his father’s Los Angeles mansion along with Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). Adonis’ central conflict arises from his dissatisfaction with a normal career and being in his father’s shadow while he hungers to carve out a name for himself. It’s elements of the script such as these that allow Creed to not feel like a tired retread and help it manage to keep its audience engaged.
The acting is solid across the board. Jordan shows promise as a young actor coming into his own. For an actor who spends parts of the film looking like his face has been through a meat tenderizer, he gives an outstanding performance, using only his facial expressions to convey emotions. It’s a difficult technique even for seasoned actors, but Jordan pulls it off with aplomb.
However, the real surprise of the film is Stallone returning to play Rocky Balboa for the seventh time in his career. Stallone’s reputation as an actor has taken a beating in the past due to poor role choices such as Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot or franchises that devolved into near self-parody territory, such as the previously mentioned Rambo films. However, his turn here is a reminder that underneath the veneer of 80s action movie star machismo is a talented actor. Stallone plays Rocky Balboa as a worn out legend, someone who thinks his world has passed him by as he continues to grow only older. In essence, while he trains Adonis to fight, it’s Adonis who helps to keep him fighting to survive and live every day. This theme reframes the character of Rocky Balboa in a new light and it truly embodies the overarching idea of legacy that the Rocky films are all about.
As is befitting of the revival of any long running franchise, the film is littered with Easter eggs and references to the past movies. Fortunately, director Ryan Coogler has the good sense to leave the fan service in the background. Instead, Coogler expects the audience to pick up on the references themselves, for their own amusement, rather than making them part of its central plot. Nods to the franchise, such as Adrian’s restaurant and Rocky’s pet turtles, make our return to this world feel organic and like we’re truly coming back to an old friend we haven’t seen in some time. I was disappointed that there was no reference to Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) killing Apollo Creed with his Soviet death punch as he did in Rocky IV, but I suspect that Coogler felt it was best to leave that sort of Street Fighter-esque silliness in the past.
Creed is the kind of old-fashioned, feel good movie that you think you’ve seen dozens of times before, but this film gives a modern take on that classic story that audiences will definitely latch onto. Bolstered by Ludwig Göransson’s excellent score, the fight scenes are kinetic and engaging, a throwback to kind of crowd cheering spectacle these movies are known for.
Though they are few and far between, the movie does have a few flaws that hinder its otherwise solid script. Rocky’s personal battle, though well executed, is predictable, and the audience will likely guess its twist well in advance. It doesn’t break the movie, but it is a bit disappointing that a movie that was doing so well in defying conventions employs one of the biggest cinematic clichés of all.
Another problem is a seemingly dropped subplot involving the family of the main antagonist, Ricky Conlan (Tom Bellew). The movie seems to be setting up the idea that he is fighting to provide for his family, but that aspect of the character is dropped almost immediately after his introduction, which leaves him as a one-dimensional antagonist. I imagine that his characterization ended up on the cutting room floor during editing, so perhaps, we could see a more fleshed out version of his story if an extended or director’s cut is released.
If you’re looking for a movie with genuine heart and passion, Creed is the perfect movie for the season.
RATING: 3/5 stars