Review: CREED (AKA ROCKY VII) Goes The Distance
That was the box office question posed to me by a fellow critic immediately following the advance screening of Pixar's The Good Dinosaur, which will open the same day as Creed. Both films are very good, if not quite great, and both are virtually guaranteed to draw large audiences.
But, he called it Rocky. And for all intents and purposes, he's not wrong. Creed, despite trying as hard as it does to start down its own path with a new character in the well-trod Rocky universe, can't help ultimately being about Stallone's "Italian Stallion," one of the most undeniably endearing movie characters of all time.
So is Creed the fresh new spin-off it's being presented as, complete with Stallone's aging Rocky passing the baton to a new, more ethnically diverse cast and crew? Or is it Rocky VII in disguise? Other than being an entertaining boxing film from promising up-and-coming director Ryan Coogler (whose only previous feature, 2013's social drama Fruitvale Station, also starred Michael B. Jordan), just what is Creed, anyhow?
It just so happens that that's the same basic question Jordan's character must ask himself. Whatever the answer, one thing's for sure: punch for punch, Creed is a holiday season crowd pleaser that knows its own central issue all too well.
That central issue, trying to find one's self, is carried out very well by the personable Jordan. He stars as Adonis Johnson, a Los Angeles-based young man with a penchant for fighting who travels to Philadelphia for guidance upon his discovery that his father, who died prior to his birth, was the greatest boxer to ever live.
His father, of course, was Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, glimpsed in flashbacks), the great opponent and later trainer of Rocky Balboa himself (Sylvester Stallone). The son of Creed tracks down Rocky, still running a humble neighborhood restaurant as established in the previous film of the series, 2006's intended swan song, Rocky Balboa.
Rocky, as all aged boxing veterans in movies do, initially refuses to train him. But train him he must, if he is to make good on whatever unsettled debt he owes Apollo for helping him find his "eye of the tiger" all those years ago. Rocky sees that young Adonis Johnson, soon to take the name Creed, can stand on his own as a great fighter. We too are intended to see this. But when Adonis is sharing the screen with Rocky, he becomes all but invisible.
The fact of the matter is that it's Rocky we're there to see, and Stallone more than delivers in what may very well be his actual final turn as the character. Rocky is every bit as lovably dim as ever, even as Coogler tries and tries to steer clear of the many cliches that make Rocky movies Rocky movies. But sooner or later, minor strains of the Rocky theme music infiltrate the score. A training regiment becomes a training montage. Rocky wears the hat, and favorite locations are revisited. All that's missing is a certain tune by Survivor.
All the while, we eat it up. Because, yes, it's true: Creed is actually Rocky VII. (It should probably be mentioned that unlike previous, more family friendly Rocky films, Creed is a hard PG-13, with more language and sensuality than we're used to seeing with this franchise.) And we eat it up so much that viewers may or may not realize that as good as Michael B. Jordan is, Adonis Creed is actually kind of boring. If there were to be Creed II without Stallone in it, how much would we care?
I suppose that's a Creed II problem. But the issue still remains that through all the noteworthy aspects of Creed -- it's the first Rocky sequel to not be written by Stallone, it's a rare instance of Stallone relinquishing directorial control over a Rocky film, and it's the first time Rocky maintains a supporting role in one of his own movies -- Coogler's would-be passing of the baton might very well actually be the final round in this championship franchise.
If that proves to be case, so be it. The Rocky movies have suffered some questionable turns over the years (Rocky IV's genetically engineered Soviet boxer that killed Apollo - a detail left unmentioned in this considerably more "street" film) and downright dismal moments (the nightmarish Rocky V). But, thanks to the inspired work of Coogler, Jordan, and a touching late career turn by Stallone as his signature character, the Rocky series has in fact truly gone the distance.