Movie Review: ‘Creed' Keeps the Rocky Tradition Gloriously Alive

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Rocky Balboa, the most recent Rocky movie from 2006, was not so much a film as a pure nostalgia exercise, made for little reason except that Sylvester Stallone felt like playing Rocky again. While it's not quite a bad movie, it was apropos that the plot of 'Balboa' centered on the 60-year-old Rocky returning to the ring for an exhibition match; it was as though the movie was itself an exhibition match that didn't really count.

Creed, the new Rocky "spinoff" movie, is the exact opposite. Rather than going through the motions of the Rocky tradition one more time, it's an honest-to-goodness movie, one that contains some serious artistry and four or five truly amazing scenes. It borrows just enough of the classic iconography of the series- whether it's the training montages, the Art Museum steps, the Bill Conti score and a half-dozen other things- yet makes changes that are just right.

The film's best decision, by far, was handing the keys over to the team behind 2013's great Fruitvale Station- writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. They had a plan and a story to tell that's clearly far beyond an attempt to cash in on a franchise that's much older than either of them (Coogler is 26, Jordan 29.)

Jordan is Adonis Johnson, the heretofore unmentioned out-of-wedlock son of Apollo Creed, the main antagonist of the first two Rocky movies. After a rough childhood, Adonis is taken in by Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad), but once he decides to pursue a boxing life, that dream brings him to Philadelphia, where seeks training and counsel from his father's legendary rival, Rocky himself.

Stallone, now pushing 70, is back playing Rocky a seventh time, and it's a moving, lived-in performance. That said, this isn't Rocky's story, it's Adonis Jordan's. And it's a great one.

Adonis is just a fascinating character, in a way that's independent of the entire Rocky tradition. Penniless and family-less for part of childhood and privileged for another part of it, he's constantly torn between the legacy of the father he never knew and a wish to be his own man.

This is such a filmmaking tour de force. There are beautiful shots- the one of Rocky and Adonis standing in front of an old fight photo of Rocky and Creed is especially a highlight.

Look also at the staging of the fight scenes. There are three of them, all shot in dramatically different styles in terms of scale, feel and lighting. But they're all great. Especially the second one, the only instance I can remember of an entire fight being shot in a single take.

In each Rocky movie you're waiting for the training montage. But this one is different from the others, and not only because the music is different., and it's in a very different part of Philadelphia. It's so good I didn't mind missing out on the Conti score.

There's a pretty strong supporting cast, too. Tessa Thompson- from Dear White People- actually gets multiple dimensions in a way that Adrian never did. We're treated to a reunion between Jordan and his running body from season 1 of The Wire, Wood "Avon Barksdale" Harris.

Phylicia Rashad has some memorable scenes as Adonis' adopted mother. That Creed's widow still lives in a gigantic mansion 30 years after his death shows that Apollo is the only boxer in history (with the possible exception of George Foreman) to successfully execute an estate plan.

Then there's the final opponent, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (played by real boxer Tony Bellew.) He's a pretty far departure from the Rocky franchise tradition of larger-than-life antagonists like Clubber Lang, Thunderlips, Ivan Drago and (of course) Apollo Creed himself. The character isn't much outside the ring. But watch him in that last fight, carrying himself with arrogance and taunting facial expressions- it's delightful, and seems to owe more to the pro wrestling heel tradition than anything in boxing.

Until now, possibly the biggest surprise of the movie year has been that the consensus best movie is the fourth Mad Max film. It's probably even more surprising that it's been joined at the top of the list by the seventh Rocky.