The best movie surprise this year may very well be “Creed,” a sequel to the “Rocky” franchise that manages to evoke all of what you loved about the original 1976 film and refashion the classic underdog story for a whole new generation of filmgoers.
You know the story: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), an amateur fighter whose brawn is valued over brains by the Philadelphia street syndicate, is given a chance at boxing’s heavyweight championship via a slick PR move by reigning champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) – Creed giving the chance to an unknown fighter dubbed “The Italian Stallion” from America’s birthplace during the bicentennial is too good a hook to pass up. Unfortunately, the plan backfires on Creed when he realizes Rocky’s literal left hook is just as good. Though Creed dodges Balboa’s bullet and retains his title in a split decision, Rocky proves himself in the ring and wins over the audience, including those in the theater- shot over 28 days for $960,000, “Rocky” won three Oscars (including Best Picture) and grossed $225 million.
For movies, millions equal more- “Rocky” generated five sequels. After watching a saga whose highlights included Rocky marrying his love Adrian, winning the title, battling contentious contenders like Clubber Lang and Drago, saying goodbye to his trainer Mickey and arch-rival Apollo, and retiring a heavyweight champion, did we really need another sequel? “Creed” proves that we did, or at least proves how much we missed the Rocky Balboa we fell in love with back in ’76. Written and directed by 29 year-old Ryan Coogler in his second feature after 2013’s “Fruitvale Station,” “Creed” shows that with a little mythology and a lot of heart, a phoenix can rise from the ashes.
Thirty-nine years after Rocky’s title shot, another young amateur boxer Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is trying to become something better. A product of foster homes, Adonis has always fought his way out: orphaned years before, a youth detention fight results in a visit from Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who tells young Adonis that he is the son of Apollo (there’s your mythology) – Adonis is Apollo Creed’s illegitimate child. Mary Anne raises Adonis in L.A. as her own son, his legacy a secret. Though shielded by the name Johnson to not besmirch Apollo’s legendary sports status, the innate Creed fight within Adonis can’t be hidden. Sneaking over the border into Mexico, Adonis fights as an unbeaten amateur. As Adonis’ eyes turn toward training as a professional boxer, no one will handle him- it’s not that he’s a hot-tempered punk, no one sees the potential. Adonis decides to visit the one man who can help, the man trained by Apollo Creed himself for the Lang fight in Mickey’s absence. Surely, Rocky owes Apollo’s son that much.
Rocky (Stallone) isn’t interested. Now living in a Philly row home and running a small restaurant called Adrian’s, the former champ has returned to a simple life after the loss of his family: Adrian and brother-in-law Paulie have passed; his son has moved away. Though convincing Rocky he is Apollo’s son, Adonis’ training request is refused; though seeing Adonis has the heart, Rocky wants to bury the past. However, it’s tough to escape a past you recognize- especially when you recognize it in others. In a moment of reflection, Rocky relents. When Adonis’ legacy is leaked, reigning champ ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) offers Adonis the shot at the title with one proviso: he must fight under the Creed name. Just as Conlan’s offer mirrors the title shot offer to Rocky by Apollo years before, Rocky now finds a purpose: help Adonis win.
It’s this revisit to “Rocky’s” past that works so well in “Creed.” Even when “Creed’s” plot points mirror “Rocky,” it’s the strength and depth of “Creed’s” characters that keep them from being cheap copies. Grounded in a well-written central love story between Adonis and his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), we’re reminded of the love story between Adrian and Rocky. In training Adonis, clad in his trademark porkpie hat and bouncing that rubber handball, Stallone takes on Mickey’s role but retains Rocky’s character- the slow speech belying street smarts, the dogged determination in regimens of early morning runs and one-handed push-ups being passed on to Adonis like a baton. Even when visuals of Adonis running through the streets of North Philly surrounded by kids on dirt bikes remind you of Rocky running through the streets of Philly’s Italian Market with children chasing behind him, you won’t mind- “Creed” has enough smarts to be its own movie with any “Rocky” reference being a loving homage.
“Creed” works- it’s a sequel that stands on its own with depth and style. Coogler smartly makes Adonis likeable and, coupled a good performance by Jordan, we want the orphaned Adonis to claim the birthright of the father he never knew. But where “Creed’s” really sly is with Sly- Coogler manages to give Stallone a Rocky that has heart and, as the Italian Stallion, Sly runs with it. Seemingly beaten and broken, Stallone shows a vulnerable Rocky we’ve missed: a faded hero facing one last shot at redemption that only Adonis can provide, each borrowing from the other’s strength. Particularly in a scene where Rocky suffers a setback, the emotion in his performance is wrought with our decades-old history with the character. If sentimental votes can win Oscars, especially for actors in previously nominated roles, Stallone could be a shoo-in. Like “Creed” itself, that would be a Sly surprise.