The "Rocky" movies never cease to surprise me, and I mean that as a big compliment. I have loved just about every "Rocky" movie ever. It feels like every time I am ready to turn my back on this franchise, it blindsides me with another great movie. In 2006, I was not expecting to love "Rocky Balboa." I thought I might like it, I figured it would be a nice, entertaining couple hours in the theater. What I did not expect was to get positively lost in it nor would I think to declare it one of the best movies of that year. Which it was, no question.
I figured "Creed" would be the last straw. I figured "Creed" would be a cheap way to keep the franchise going a few more movies as Sylvester Stallone gets older. Boy, was I absolutely wrong. Because "Creed" is much better than the trailers propose, its much better than it needed to be, and almost ten years later, this franchise has blindsided me again. "Creed" made me want to get up and cheer.
But its more than just a crowd-pleasing, rip-roaring boxing movie. We clamor to the "Rocky" movies not because of the boxing or the dialogue or that great music. We go, I think, because of the character's journey. The "Rocky" movies are not your typical sports movies, which is precisely what I love about them. They are movies about the strength and courage of individuals, and how we all need those ideals to accomplish our goals. They are movies about sacrifice and finding success even in failure. Because lets face it, Rocky lost way more than he won across the entire series, but Rocky kept getting back up. Rocky represents life; you are going to get hurt in life, you are going to get knocked down, but the most important thing in life, whether you win or lose, is that you get back up. "Creed" reminds us of that in a powerful way, instead of a cheesy, corporate way.
Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, and Johnson has been a boy with a huge chip on his shoulder his whole life. I guess that has to do with him being the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, one of the most successful boxers ever. Johnson quits his job at a financial firm in order to pursue his dream of professional boxing, but most trainers only see an over-confident brawler. Which, at the beginning of the movie, Johnson is exactly that. Sure, he has talent and he can win some fights. But he's too cocky, he needs training and he gets put on his ass a few times in order to reinforce that fact. His mother doesn't want him to box, because its the profession that got his father killed. But Johnson can't help this overbearing desire, he feels he was put in this world to box, just like his father and he is going to find whatever avenue necessary to complete his goal.
So he finds the Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and he trains with him. Balboa is reluctant at first, but he gives in to the kids demands. Its an uneasy set up at first, but they quickly begin to care for each other and regard each other as family. While I can hear you rolling your eyes, and while I know I made that sound sappy and silly. "Creed" is anything but sappy and silly. Much like the other "Rocky" movies, this is a movie that has a full heart and deep soul. And at the climax of the movie, when Johnson puts on the classic Creed, all-American boxing trousers. Its not some unearned gimmick, its the end of the emotional journey for this films hero, and the audience feels every bit of it.
I have always liked Michael B. Jordan, but he has had some rough years. I wasn't keen on "That Awkward Moment" and I felt he was completely wasted in "Fantastic Four" earlier this year. But it finally seems he found the perfect note in this films story and he literally picked it up and ran with it. Everything I mentioned above about an emotional, personal journey could not have been accomplished if we didn't believe in that journey. That is exactly what Jordan accomplishes here, a real, raw, emotional journey. By playing Apollo's son and not a younger version, Jordan carefully etches in the details of this character and breathes a delicate life into him. Its masterful work, and it really counts here.
Sylvester Stallone plays a very different kind of Rocky in this movie. While I have never rendered Stallone as one of the best actors ever, he certainly will make you feel some genuine sympathy. I enjoyed and was even touched by the decisions made by Stallone in this movie, and he does so very profound work here. You see, Rocky learns that he has cancer, which killed his wife. But he doesn't want to get treatment because he wants to see the events through with Creed. This isn't the same Rocky we are used to, but Stallone makes us believe this is the same person and does so with a real flair.
I think the only misstep this movie makes is when it comes to Creed's girlfriend, played by Tessa Thompson. I can honestly say I think Thompson does fine in the role. The big problem is she is the typical girlfriend we find in this kind of movie. She does good, but any dozen other actresses could have done this in their sleep. I really wish they could have given her an actual role to play, and if they did, I feel like I could judge Thompson as a performer better. I don't understand sports movies and their unwillingness to really give women something to play besides the girlfriend on the sidelines. It doesn't derail the movie by any means, its just a wacky distraction. Since there is so much life in all the characters in this movie, I was dumbfounded that the girlfriend was so thin emotionally.
But in a year that I think has been full of underwhelming moments and even bitter disappointments, I am glad that something came out of the woodwork and surprised me. The world of Rocky and Creed has never looked so strong, so vibrant, so thematically sound. I didn't know what to expect from this, but I was not expecting this to be as good as it was. If you've been a fan of this franchise, you owe it to yourself to check this out now.
FINAL GRADE: A