Creed ***

A fitting — and surprisingly touching — return to the big screen for Rocky Balboa as he trains Apollo Creed’s son.

Is it worth $10? Yes

As the “Rocky” sequels declined in merit and craftsmanship throughout the ‘80s, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) became a joke, a clichéd punch line of meat-headed predictability whose movies struggled to find an iota of originality. It got so ridiculous that by the time the abominable “Rocky V” was released in 1990 the climactic fight took place on a street, not a boxing ring. At this point we thought we were saying goodbye to Rocky for the last time, and we were okay with that.

The tone changed, however, with “Rocky Balboa” in 2006, which was a smartly written drama that ended on a poignant emotional high. Rocky was older, wiser, and had a perspective on life that felt worthwhile and insightful. Turns out it was good to see the old lug one more time.

Now “Creed” brings Rocky back to the big screen once again in a story that shifts the focus to Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky’s rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers) from the first four films in the franchise. Adonis was born of an adulterous relationship Apollo had, but with Adonis’ biological mother gone Apollo’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) takes him in as a young teen and gives him a good life. Unsurprisingly, Adonis wants to box and find success without the help of his last name, but can’t get anyone to train him in his hometown of Los Angeles, so he moves to Philadelphia.

Adonis’ plan is to get Rocky – who’s still running Adrian’s Restaurant and enjoying retirement – to train him. Rocky wastes 15 minutes of screen time refusing before inevitably agreeing, and numerous training scenes ensue, none of which feature anything close to the rousing musical score and song “Gonna Fly Now” that made the training in “Rocky” (1976) so memorable.

As Adonis quickly moves through the ranks, struggles with his identity and falls in love with a singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), Jordan impresses with his passion and likeability. He also has affable chemistry with Stallone, who is doing something truly unique here: There are few examples in film history of an iconic character aging on screen the way Rocky has. In taking Rocky’s focus away from boxing and onto “normal” life, i.e. illness, the loss of friends and loved ones, and aging, our hero remarkably doesn’t seem any less iconic. Rather, he’s winning at the game of life with the experience and knowledge he offers others, and it feels completely authentic. He’s gone from meathead to mentor, and we all win when he gives advice. 

It’s a common criticism of boxing movies that the fight scenes look unoriginal – after all, how many different ways are there to shoot a boxing match? In “Creed,” writer/director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) found one: In Adonis’ first real fight as a pro, the camera moves around, through, and with the boxers’ in the ring to capture each blow with startling detail in an extremely impressive three-minute shot. By not cutting, and therefore not letting the construct of editing artificially create each choreographed blow, Coogler immerses us in the experience and allows us to feel the brutality these men impose upon one another. There’s a raw, animalistic nature to this moment that reaches our core emotions, which is not something many movies accomplish.

That said, all the boxing sequences are also a reminder of how different boxing is in movies than in real professional matches. There are more punches thrown and landed in one round of each fight in “Creed” than there were in the entire Mayweather-Pacquiao fight last May, and that went 12 rounds.

Of course, this has always been the case with the six “Rocky” movies that preceded “Creed,” and will continue to be the case with “Creed’s” already-in-the-works sequels. But try as it might, “Creed” is no “Rocky,” which won the Best Picture Oscar. The similarities between the two movies are plentiful and obvious, as are the differences, but what really separates them is “Creed’s” inability to truly inspire with its underdog story, probably because we’ve seen so many “Rocky” rip-offs in the last 40 years that the entire subgenre feels diluted.

Still, “Creed” does plenty right and is absolutely worthy of our attention.

Did you know?
This is the first film in the “Rocky” franchise not written by Sylvester Stallone.