Here is an example of how fantastic “Creed” is: it manages to take the fairly corny in-ring death of Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV” and make it a touchstone moment. Director/writer Ryan Coogler has created a movie so beautiful that he’s made an average, 30 year old movie become better than it truly is. If you go back and watch “Rocky IV” after seeing this movie, it will actually make Apollo’s death that much more impactful knowing what is to come.
While Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed character is only seen in footage from past films in the Rocky Balboa franchise, his presence is all over this wonderfully thrilling and emotionally powerful clash of culture, age, and, believe it or not, social commentary. Everything from regret, loneliness, and father abandonment is covered in “Creed” and it’s easily the most surprisingly great movie of 2015.
“Creed” begins by introducing us to Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. He’s locked up in juvenile hall and is rescued by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, with a warm, fantastic performance). Mary Anne essentially adopts Adonis and he grows up in a lavish Los Angeles mansion adorned with a “C” on the massive security gates.
Once the movie moves to present day, Michael B. Jordan shows up as Adonis (who prefers to be called Donny). Donny spends most of his time away from his shirt-and-tie office job either bare-knuckle boxing in Tijuana or trying to persuade Los Angeles boxing trainers to take him on as a student. After he’s repeatedly shot down, he packs up and moves to Philadelphia to seek out the one man that he can coerce into training him.
Of course, that man is Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who spends his time running his restaurant (lovingly called Adrian’s) and trying to stay out of the public’s eye. The first scene with Donny and Rocky is written so perfectly that it never seems contrived. From there, the relationship that they build feels natural and right, even though the old white dude and young black kid only share one similar trait: the inability to quit.
Donny moves into a South Philly studio apartment and meets his neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is an aspiring musician. In yet another credit to Coogler’s writing, the relationship they form is also brilliant. Bianca is far more than a cheerleader or typical girlfriend role in “Creed”, she is a crucial element in this story as her life parallels Donny’s perfectly.
Bianca also gets Donny a proper cheesesteak and teaches him the meaning of the word “jawn”, which any Philadelphian knows is a key component of maturity and growth.
It would be a tremendous disservice to ignore the directorial skills of Ryan Coogler. He’s not only getting the very best performances from each of these actors, he’s crafted some of the most compelling boxing scenes in movie history. Donny’s debut match is an unedited, one-shot masterpiece that begins when Donny and Rocky walk to the ring and finishes when the match ends. The craft of this shot is on par with the infamous “Goodfellas” tracking shot and that is not an overstatement.
In short, Ryan Coogler is now a director whose films are must-see events.
The screenplay (by Coogler and Aaron Covington) is the first of the seven Rocky films that Sylvester Stallone is not credited with writing. This has allowed for Rocky to have a fresh voice and Stallone delivers in a big way. Stallone’s range, which goes from subtle humor to genuine sadness, is unforced and easily the finest work he’s done since the original “Rocky.” If there is justice in the world, there will be great difficulty choosing which moment is used as Stallone’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination clip.
Michael B. Jordan needs to be prepared for massive stardom. “Creed” is a career defining performance and he is captivating from start to finish. The screen presence, charisma, and physicality, particularly shown in the aforementioned tracking shot, cannot be measured. Jordan commands every moment in “Creed” and disappears in a role that fits him like a glove.
If anyone leaves “Creed” off their Best of 2015 lists, they simply are wrong. This is a movie that will have audiences and critics bouncing from applause to tears, all due to the incredible talents of Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, and Sylvester Stallone. “Creed” is the kind of movie that could have people going to the theater twice to see it, if only to take others that haven’t seen it.
In other words, go see this jawn.