Everybody loves an underdog story. Rooting for a scrappy, gutsy hero to win the day against seemingly insurmountable odds is a timeless formula, and the secret behind the success of the popular "Rocky" film series.
So it's fitting that when expectations were low for the seventh film in the franchise -- a spin-off following Adonis "Donnie" Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa's rival and friend, Apollo Creed -- the nearly 40-year-old series not only finds new life, but delivers its best, most exciting installment since the first "Rocky" film.
In "Creed," Michael B. Jordan re-teams with his "Fruitvale Station" director, Ryan Coogler, to star as the upstart fighter. Plucked from a life of bouncing around the foster care system and juvenile detention centers, Donnie is adopted by Apollo's widow, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) and raised as her own. Though his father died in the ring before Donnie was born, the kid's got fighting in his blood.
Years later and against his mother's wishes, Donnie moves to Philadelphia to look up his father's old pal, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), in the hope that the local legend will come out of retirement to train him to be a professional boxer. Of course, Balboa is reluctant at first, but as he sees more of himself in the young fighter, he agrees to whip Donnie into shape in time for a bout against British light-heavyweight champion "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).
"Creed" is scripted by Coogler with Aaron Covington, and they add real poignancy and heart to their story by focusing on the idea of legacies. Wanting to make it on his own, Donnie keeps his famous lineage secret, fighting under the surname "Johnson." Once his identity gets out, he's forced to overcome his temper and the rather significant chip on his shoulder in order to prove himself worthy of the Creed name. He also strikes up a romance with a local R&B musician named Bianca (the magnetic Tessa Thompson, "Dear White People").
The romance between the two is sweet and real, and thankfully their relationship trajectory never includes her worrying and demanding that he stop boxing. She knows he's a fighter when they start dating, and she accepts that side of him. That the singer has progressive hearing loss and sometimes wears a hearing aid isn't a cynical tool for unearned pathos, but simply one aspect that shapes her character.
The "Rocky" movies have always been more about the personalities of the fighters than the boxing itself, and "Creed" boasts a number of excellent performances. Stallone and Jordan play off one another well, and the veteran actor gives his strongest performance in years, tapping into the regret as well as the pride in his iconic character.
Michael B. Jordan has been struggling to break through for years, delivering great work on television in shows such as "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," earning significant Oscar buzz for his performance in "Fruitvale Station," then landing his most high-profile role yet as the Human Torch in this summer's "Fantastic Four" movie. But time and time again his big moment fails to materialize. Hopefully this film will connect with audiences, because the kid deserves to be a star.
Ryan Coogler showed with his first feature, the powerful indie "Fruitvale Station," that he's great with actors. Now "Creed" proves that he's got a knack for exciting action as well, effortlessly shifting from intimate drama into the realm of muscular blockbuster filmmaking.
There are two major fights in the film, and Coogler stages them in two distinctive styles. The first appears to be shot in one take, the camera endlessly circling the fighters and giving the fight an immersive, naturalistic feel. The second fight is a marvel of editing, with swooping camera moves turning the action visceral and operatic as blood splashes around the ring.
Throughout, the photography by cinematographer Maryse Alberti is impeccable. Key support comes from composer Ludwig Göransson, who provides an effective score that slowly builds up to the moment those iconic "Rocky" horns kick in -- key for those crucial training montages ( and naturally, there's a run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) -- while making only sparing use of Bill Conti's famous "Rocky" theme.
Big and bombastic, "Creed" is popcorn filmmaking at its most thrilling; it begs to be seen with an enthusiastic, amped-up crowd. Appropriate for a film so much about legacy, the film manages to feel very much a part of the franchise without simply imitating what came before. We can only hope the seventh installment of that other huge 1970's film franchise (something about space battles?) is this good.