I was born in the year that the original ROCKY was released and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. Growing up, I lived and breathed everything ROCKY. I had the soundtrack pumping through my boom box from the time Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" hit the FM radio. Yes, the FM radio. There was no satellite radio then. Even when my parents took me to see ROCKY III in theaters in '82, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be ROCKY! I even set up something in high school that we'd be arrested for today where we set up a mock ring on my front lawn and boxed with the real pairs of gloves I had acquired from Hanukkah's past. Everyone came out to see this fight and it was me against the most arrogant, snobby kid in my class. When the faux bell rang, he came charging at me and threw a jab. I bobbed and weaved and through a left haymaker that connected and he was down for the count, fight over. His retainer broken, I walked away a champion. A year earlier I had seen the horrid ROCKY V that I stand by today as being one of the worst sequels of all time. From start to finish, it was an awful parting note to my favorite movie franchise. It was not until 16 years later that Stallone laced up the gloves one more time at age 60 and released the excellent ROCKY BALBOA in 2006. It was the swan song I had waited sixteen years for and it was worth the wait. It was over now and I could die happy knowing that ROCKY won in the end, not on the street but in the squared circle where he belonged. I was happy with that ending until early 2015...
When I heard about Creed on a movie rumor website early this year I shrugged it off completely. While I thought it was a clever way to keep the ROCKY franchise alive, I simply was very pleased with 2006's ROCKY BALBOA being the final bookmark in the historic film series that made Sylvester Stallone a household name. Then I read the cast list and that it was starring Michael B. Jordan and I had just reviewed Fantastic Four for AFJ. He was awful in that movie as was the rest of the cast and the film, on the whole, was the worst movie I have seen not only this year but in the past five years. I can think of at least three skin conditions I would rather have than sit through Fantastic Four again. It's not that it was Jordan that ruined the FF movie, it was literally everything in it that was awful. So my stock in Jordan taking on the role of Adonis Johnson, son of the late, great Apollo Creed was not too high. However, like that haymaker that I threw all those years ago, Creed was an absolute wakeup call that champions never die.
As Bil Conti's magical musical score skipped through my head all of Thanksgiving weekend, I geared up in my usual solo movie experience. Ticket reserved, medium center towards the halfway point towards the back. Large popcorn with a ridiculous amount of imitation butter and even more salt. Large white cherry ICEE that I fill up at the station, down half, get a brain freeze and promptly refill until its coming out of the plastic hole. My game was on point. After the love letter reviews that Creed had received, I wasn't just preparing for a movie, I was preparing for a ROCKY movie. Even the putz that tried to con me out of my seat because he and his wife did not have tickets together was shunned by me when normally I would have given the guy a break. However, when I'm in my element like this, there's not much that can phase me.
Just to be certain Junkies, this is no ROCKY reboot or reimagining. This is the same lovable lug from Philly whose journey is not yet complete. And judging by the packed house, no one wants to see it end--ever. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) takes us along for the story of Apollo Creed's illegitimate son, Adonis "Hollywood" Johnson. It is an important point to make that it was through Apollo's apparent infidelity that Adonis was born. I never even thought about that in the trailers and was confused at the preview scenes where the character says he did not grow up privileged, etc. I was kind of like, "Huh? He's Apollo Creed's son! Of course, he grew up wealthy!" However, it is a plot point that they do not make until well into the second act of the film. But the movie opens in 1998 at a boys prison of sorts where the place goes on lockdown because of a brawl in the lunchroom. It is young thirteen-year-old Adonis giving as good as he's getting and he is thrown in the kids equivalent of "the hole" at the facility.
When Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) shows up at the juvenile center, I was admittedly a little confused because I just assumed that this was his mother, but she isn't. Rashad takes over the role that originally belonged to actress Sylvia Meals but we haven't seen her since '85 so I had no issue with the recasting. And God knows The Cosby Show mom needed to distance herself from Cliff Huxtable in 2015. Mary Anne offers young Adonis to come live with her at her sprawling Los Angeles estate from then on so he kinda did grow up very privileged except for the years where his birth mom gave him up for foster care. Despite Apollo's obvious infidelity that clearly hurt Mary Anne deeply, she treats Adonis as one of her own. As a Creed. Cut to present day Tijuana, Mexico and Adonis is prepping for a fight--his fifteenth fight and it is a quick bout when he disposes of his opponent quickly and makes it back to his financial field day job in LA by morning. Adonis has just received a promotion and seems to be on track for a nice, stable life without living in the shadow of his father whom he never met. His anger about that runs deep and fast and the chip on his shoulder is the size of the Rocky statue at the art museum in Philly. After just being promoted, Adonis resigns and leaves his job without warning or fanfare but clear disappointment from his superiors. Like his Dad, Adonis has that kind of air about him. Not so much arrogance, but subdued confidence. Adonis first tries to go to where his father trained to Apollo's corner man Duke's (Tony Burton) son's "Little Duke's" gym but gets nowhere and loses his Ford Mustang in the process. I loved the way director Coogler flashed up a potential fight opponents stats in a freeze frame when they appeared on the screen. Very cool little element added for the iPhone generation kind of like on a video game. When he tells his de-facto mother Mary Anne that he needs to become a fighter full time, she gives a rousing speech as to why he should not go that route. It is some speech and graphic at that and makes you realize what kind of commitment a fighters life really is and how it affects the family. But just like Apollo taking on Ivan Drago, Adonis cannot be talked out of it and is headed for Philadelphia, PA to meet up with his dad's best friend and greatest rival, Rocky Balboa. There is one scene before he leaves in the estate's expansive media room where Adonis cues up YouTube and Superfight II (ROCKY II) and he shadowboxes the part of his father against Rocky and you can't help but get the chills.
I am only an hour outside of Philly and the parts that they shot the film in are literally the same places they shot the first film forty years ago. It looks virtually exactly the same save for flat-screen TVs and smartphones. The Philly in ROCKY movies has its own pulse, its a character in the films that carry the framework of the whole narrative. Without this Philly, there is no ROCKY and vice versa. So when Adonis arrives, it is definitely a wakeup call from the luxurious lifestyle of swanky LA that he has become accustomed. He takes a shoebox-sized apartment and begins his quest at Adrian's Restaurant late at night as the city's favorite son is closing up shop for the night. Transfixed on the legendary Leroy Neiman painting that ended ROCKY III and a photo from Superfight II. While Rocky has no clue who this kid is, he has information that no one else in the world has. Its as if he is from the future or something and it clearly spooks the champ a little. He talks about the secret third fight between Rocky & Apollo that was behind closed doors and the Stallion admits that his father won before shooing Adonis away after revealing his identity. But this is the son of Apollo Creed and he's not going to give up that easily.
Adonis is determined and heads to Mighty Mick's boxing gym to get a locker and start training. The owner of the gym, Pete Sporino (the wonderful character actor Ritchie Coster) an old friend of Rocky's from the neighborhood has no idea of Adonis' lineage and pays him no attention. Pete is too busy concentrating on his undefeated son Leo "The Lion" Sporino and his future over nurturing new no-name fighters. However, after more visits to Adrian's, Adonis takes to calling Rocky "Unc" and you can just see that Rocky needs this. Adrian is gone, Paulie is gone, Apollo is gone and his son Robert has moved to Vancouver. He is alone for the first time in this world and time is catching up to him as he pushes 70. When Adonis and Rocky show up at Mighty Mick's to train, Pete feels a bit betrayed because he has asked Rocky a hundred times to get involved with the gym and more importantly, his son. As the two begin to really get to know each other through the gym training, Adonis is still hesitant to embrace the Apollo side of his legacy.
In his apartment building, Adonis meets an up an coming singer named Bianca (the beautiful Tessa Thompson) who ironically has severe progressive hearing loss. Like Rocky & Adrian, Adonis & Bianca are damaged and find their missing pieces in each other's arms. By the time of Adonis' first fight with Rocky in his corner against Leo "The Lion," the jig is up and Ritchie knows after calling his friends in LA that Adonis is Creed's illegitimate son. Rocky asks him to keep it quiet but the next day after a handsome victory over Leo, it is the hot topic in sports all over the world. The legend Apollo Creed and his fully armored legacy now has a chink in it because he had a child out of wedlock. Back in LA, Mary Anne is upset but knew it was only a matter of time while Adonis feels lost but at this point has moved in with Rocky who helps him find his true self. The Creed within must emerge at some point. Over in the EU, undefeated champ "Pretty" Ricky Conlan is looking at seven years in prison for some kind of weapons charge. Tack on that he broke his last opponent's jaw at the pre-fight press conference, he needs to publicly have a good fight to fix his reputation. His manager, Tommy Holiday flies to Philadelphia to talk to Rocky and Adonis and attempts to set up a fight only if Adonis uses the name Creed. Rocky is against it because he knows that this a setup, plain and simple to make Adonis look like a chump and ruin the Creed name.
Rocky's reverence and love for Adonis' late father run so deep that by the time the champ gets diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, he is ready to give up and not partake in chemotherapy and just fade away. When Adonis finds out about his diagnosis, the brash young fighter tells him they are in this together. That if he fights in the ring, Rocky fights through the treatment. It is difficult to watch Rocky losing his hair, wearing a sweater type hat and having training sessions for Adonis in the hospital while he is being pumped full of poison but it is all a metaphor that at some point the torch has to be passed. Even if you are Rocky Balboa, Adonis is trying to show him that you don't just get to give up, you do whatever you can, one step at a time.
By the time they fly to the UK for the big fight and the press conference, Adonis is getting killed by the press. His father's name is getting dragged through the mud and despite having never met the man, he has begun to embrace the legacy of what he was born to do. When Adonis gets into the dressing room and sees a box with a bow, you get those goosebumps again as you see the immortal stars & stripes boxer shorts that Apollo wore in '76. The fight is masterfully shot and is nothing like any of the Rocky fights that we are used to seeing. This is down and dirty and bloody shot close up and in your face with some vicious slo-mo shots. No wide shots of seeing the entire ring and the whole round and then a montage; this is hardcore boxing. While I am not going to say who wins, who loses or if its a draw, all I know is that I was glued to the screen. It was absolutely glorious.
Creed does stand on the shoulders of a giant in the Rocky formula that Stallone perfected in five of six films; I don't really count ROCKY V anymore. This new spinoff is something I did not think possible but it is so fresh, so unique that is hard to resist standing up and cheering whether you are a Rocky nut like me or a casual fan. Believe it or not, that is what the theater patrons did at my screening, clap like crazy and stand up and cheer. Not kidding. I haven't seen that in years and it was wonderful And getting to see a star in Michael B. Jordan emerge after a Fantastic Four movie I did not think anyone could recover from is remarkable. The final scene is hard to hold back tears as I pondered whether if this is really the end this time. That their will only be my memories of holding my hands up high at every big set of stairs in life I climb. Make no mistake, getting to the top of your own set of stairs in life is not easy and Creed reminds us that no matter what your situation is, how much money you have, no one said it was going to be easy. For those that are down and thinking that giving up is a real option, see Creed on the big screen and remember that the biggest fight you'll ever be in is with the guy looking back at you in the mirror. "Creed is an absolute knockout" is a cliche I have seen a dozen times in reviews over the past week but its a cliche I wholeheartedly agree with. Like Rocky says, and I'm paraphrasing, its at the top of those steps that you can see heaven.