Jason Wiese | Culture Editor
Friday, Nov. 20, 2015; 10:35 a.m.
First off, yes, “Creed” is the best boxing movie of the year. Considering that the only other film of such kind was the cliché-ridden “Southpaw”, which was saved just barely by Jake Gyllenhaal’s gripping performance, it seems like that would be an easy achievement. However, despite its formulaic narrative and often cheesy moments, director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”), along with his co-screenwriter Aaron Covington, adds just the right ingredients to make this otherwise familiar recipe feel very flavorful. Thus, it is the first installment of the “Rocky” franchise since the Oscar-winning original that feels as refreshing.
The story centers on Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (a strong Michael B. Jordan, stepping up gracefully from this summer’s ultra-disappointing “Fantastic Four”), an orphan who discovers at 13 that he is the love child of Apollo Creed, the rival-turned friend of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, who died before Donnie was born, as depicted in 1985’s “Rocky IV”. He grows up to pursue the same dream of making it as a boxing champion. He quits his job in Los Angeles and moves out of his foster mother’s (Phylicia Rashad) luxurious home (she is the widow of Creed after all) and goes live in Philadelphia. His true reason to move there is to find the only man he believes can train him: the Italian Stallion himself.
Stallone gives a pleasant performance reprising his career defining role and obviously enjoying it. My only criticism about the Rocky character is that there is almost too much of him involved in the story. I was happy to see him be a part of it, but I was initially hoping that he could have been more of a passive presence, allowing Donnie to spread his wings far enough without Rocky’s spotlight getting in the way. He is an enjoyable presence as Donnie’s trainer and the two have great chemistry, but considering that we have seen Rocky’s story six times before, Donnie’s story is the more interesting one.
He keeps his family history a secret, wishing to create his own legacy and avoid his father’s shadow, which is where his true struggle lies. This is what makes the film unique from others of its kind. Usually a boxing film is either about making it big despite unconquerable odds or going from rags to riches, then back to rags and then back to riches again. Donnie already has everything he needs to hit it big, but to reach that level his own way is the challenge and an engaging conflict at that.
Of course, there is a love interest. Tessa Thompson (who dazzled in 2014’s “Dear White People”) plays Bianca, an aspiring musician who catches Donnie’s eye after moving into her apartment building. She is very likable as a woman who loves and supports Donnie in a realistic fashion, but her character excels especially from being a strong, self-motivating individual, not giving up on her dreams despite the secret of hers which could potentially kill that dream. Donnie and Bianca relate to each other in that way, making their romance one of the strongest elements of the film.
Thankfully, the boxing sequences do not disappoint, especially one near the middle of the film that is shot all in one take, which was very impressive to me after seeing enough fight scenes with an orgy of quick cuts and montages. Speaking of montages, in classic “Rocky” fashion, there are a few that trace Donnie’s training progression, but without a hint of cheesiness. In fact, they succeed in promoting motivation. I actually felt like working out afterward.
Essentially, “Creed” is a film that slightly achieves the same goal that its protagonist pursues: being the best that it can be without riding on the coattails of its predecessor. It is not a success at everything it sets out to be, but it has enough heart, humor and excitement (not to mention a “knockout” performance by Jordan) to earn a spot among 2015’s best crowd pleasers.