‘Creed’: The latest ‘Rocky’ sequel takes a compelling new direction

One of the holiday season’s most unexpected cinema surprises, “Creed” transforms the Rocky legend by re-launching its driving myth in the 21st century.

Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson and Michael B. Jordan in promo photo for "Creed." (Image via Wikipedia entry for "Creed.")

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31, 2015 – History is one of the biggest driving forces behind “Creed,” the latest in a long stream of Rocky sequels—No. 7, to be exact. Not only does history factor strongly into this film’s narrative; it also drives our understanding of just how organic both Rocky and the franchise still are.

The original “Rocky” barely predated the idea that a smash hit film could drive additional sequels to establish a popular franchise. In 1976, this notion would have seemed a strangely foreign concept. Even when “Rocky II” came out, many had still not grasped the concept.

But when “Rocky IV” came out in 1985 – marking the latest in a steady stream of a Rocky films every three years – Rocky, and more specifically Sylvester Stallone, had become an American institution and an unwitting franchise.

Now, Hollywood film franchises, many of them envisioned in advance, are all the rage. But “Rocky” became a franchise largely due to the sheer determination of Stallone. It’s an unfortunate truth that ever since the original “Rocky,” the series has seen a fairly steady decrease in quality.

But none of the films in the franchise has failed to make money. That’s because there’s something organic to the way the Rocky movies are made that transcends the usual franchise cynicism. There are very few franchises the public cares about the way Rocky is cared about.

Released to take advantage of the Christmas season, “Creed” bucks some of this trend, while still exhibiting the naked sentimentality that has been organic to the series from the beginning. But because “Creed” mirrors the first “Rocky” more closely than any of its other sequels, it establishes a unique identity that stands on its own without totally depending on the “Rocky” mythology. The trailer below shows how:

The film begins as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (played in the prologue by Alex Henderson, later by Michael B. Jordan) being confined to a room in a juvenile facility for fighting before Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the wife of the late Apollo Creed (but not Adonis’ mother) confronts him. It’s in this scene where Adonis actually learns of his heritage, which, of course, fits him neatly into the “Creed” lineage.

The parallels between Donnie and Rocky become instantly apparent. In a different life, Donnie – who has already demonstrated a penchant for fighting – would have endured the same downtrodden upbringing as Rocky. He’s rescued from that life by Apollo’s wife, who takes him on.

Years later, as a young man, he’s drawn to the world of boxing, choosing to abandon his budding career in the securities industry, ultimately traveling to Philadelphia to see if his late father’s old friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) might help.

For older fighters like Rocky and Apollo, boxing is a way out of their unacceptable life. For Donnie, things are much less myopic. True, he yearns to use boxing as a way out of an unsatisfying life, just as much as any boxer. But his escape plan is very different and much harder to contextualize.

Director Ryan Coogler is almost slavish in his devotion to the Rocky mythology, as evidenced by how he deploys it to his new protagonist. So much of what he does echoes earlier Rocky films, specifically the first one. “Creed” feels familiar. Yet there’s enough of a twist in the plot that this film ends up tracking differently.

Throughout most of the prior films in the “Rocky” franchise, plot and character were haphazard. The emotional pitch was always there, but coherent motivation and plot was only furtively present, popping up here and there among the clichés. That’s what makes the attention paid to “Creed” and its plot so refreshingly different.

As director, Coogler fleshes out the reality of the film’s characters and situations, never getting lazy with the sports and boxing clichés, but making the genre again seem exciting and new. This is particularly true in the film’s ultimate showdown, which proves to be one of Hollywood’s most engaging set pieces of 2015.

From the start of the Donnie’s first match, Coogler keeps the audience within the center of the fight until Donnie emerges victorious. He toggles the camera shots to keep the emotions high while never losing focus. The fight lasts only a couple of minutes. But the camera retains its intense focus on Donnie and his objective while retaining the intimate and claustrophobic atmosphere of a boxing arena.

The outcome changes Donnie’s life, the scope of the film and the audience’s emotional connection to Donnie’s journey. Coogler puts the audience in Donnie’s shoes, making the audience as much a part of the film as its characters.

Coogler does an excellent job with this scene, which propels the rest of the movie and mostly hits all the right notes as he builds to Donnie’s ultimate ring confrontation. Anyone who’s seen the Rocky films will understand where this is going as the finale echoes the first Rocky most directly. But it doesn’t matter, as the film has forever changed into Donnie’s fight with how to define his own legacy.

“Creed” does have its faults. Its biggest miss involves the handling of Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a young but increasingly well-known singer-songwriter who becomes Donnie’s girlfriend—another “same only different” parallel with the original “Rocky.” Bianca is a strongly crafted character, but doesn’t get much to do beside sit in Donnie’s corner toward the end of the film. She deserved better.

Another but less important failing is this film’s rather forced effort to make Apollo, or at least his spirit, more of a key off-screen character in the film. The idea, of course, is fine in theory, but didn’t work the way it was deployed, seeming to be more of a familiar device to promote the film than something vital to the plot. In addition, Apollo is largely unimportant in “Creed” because, being absent as a father, all that’s needed here is to establish his familial connection to Donnie’s life.

Fortunately, the Apollo material is quickly forgotten and doesn’t drag the movie down. Apollo ends up being what he should be, a legacy figure that bridges to a film that’s all about transcending a family history that can often define an individual’s life in advance.

“Creed” is an exciting, intriguing, generally fast-paced film that is attracting the kind of audience drawn to the original “Rocky,” particularly its appealing message promoting the idea that, with focus, concentration and heart, one can transcend even the humblest of origins. But it’s not just another “Rocky.”

Instead, it’s all about Donnie becoming his own person while accepting that history is as much a part of him as anything else and something that can be used to help him become better, more complete person. It’s what establishes “Creed” as a compelling film that can define its own legacy and move on from the past. And that’s what makes “Creed” one of the most pleasant surprises of 2015.

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