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Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is a bit of a hard-headed kid who finds himself spending time in a youth facility getting into fights. One day, a woman name Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) visits him. He thinks she is a social worker but she isn’t. She is his father’s wife, and he the son of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), a former heavyweight boxing champion who infamously died in the ring when his ego and pride blinded him. We flash forward more than fifteen years and an adult Adonis has grown up with Mary Anne in her palatial estate and works at securities firm, recently promoted. But this is not the life for the hungry young man. There is an emptiness inside, and spends his evenings watching YouTube clips of Apollo fighting Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), and in a wonderfully symbolic moment, stands up in front of the big screen, with Rocky projected over him, and “fights” his father.
After he is turned away at the elite boxing club that started his father’s career, not deterred, he quits his job and heads east to Philadelphia in hopes of tracking down Balboa to help him train. He finds him at his restaurant, Adrian’s, so named after his deceased wife. Rocky is a surprised by how much the boy knows about him and Apollo, and when the young fighter reveals who he is and his intent, Rocky is initially resistant, though soon realizes his life is only about looking back and remembering the ones who have left him behind. He takes on the kid with a promise to make him the best if he in turn pledges to work hard. Creed assures that every punch he’s thrown has been on his own.
And so the story goes, following all the markers from A to B that we’ve come to expect in this genre but handled with such sincerity and confidence it feels–like in 1976 when a young Stallone did the same–fresh, and invigoratingly so. That is entirely credited to the trifecta of Coogler, who deftly directs the now worn-out tropes of the boxing genre, Jordan, who wholly embodies the role and gives another performance that signals this actor’s rightful place as one of the best working in the business today, and of course, Stallone, who is the heart of the film, delivering a performance that is poignant, emotional, and more true than any work he has done in arguably his entire career, topping even his remarkable performance when he last revisited the character in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. It’s not just that Stallone, who plays Rocky in the first film in the franchise that he did not write, plays on his age, he plays it for real. He is Rocky and his story is Stallone’s story and when he shows vulnerability we recognize it in both the character and the actor. He is funny, charming, sentimental and deeply personal. There are moments in this performance rich with dignity and grace. The film has Creed’s name, but this is Rocky’s movie.
That’s not to say that Jordan is secondary. No. In fact, Adonis is a wonderfully written and conceived character that generates the same enthusiasm Rocky did so long ago. He is an enigmatic young fighter, unsure about his past and feeling like he has no real identity. He carries much of the film and both Coogler and Jordan seem very much aware of the shoes they are stepping into. Jordon never tries to emulate or impersonate. He finds a new line and while it is wedged into a very specific path, he embraces the spaces between and simply explodes. He is riveting.
Coogler does a great job of keeping the film right on track with the original even though it’s essentially an inverted copy. Adonis grows up in wealth in a white-collar world, quite the opposite of his counter-part in the 70s, but he faces the same doubts about his abilities and future. He’s hardened by a passion to find his path and when given the chance of a life-time must face the demons inside and the name he’s consistently shunned. He meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson) a talented up and coming singer songwriter who is not Adrian and is never meant to be but instills the same motivation and courage within while still creating a character that has her own insecurities. But it is the relationship between Rocky and Adonis that mirror Mickey and Balboa best, with a twist that I won’t reveal but adds a depth and a bond that when the inevitable training montage begins, ends with a powerful cinematic moment that both honors the tradition and redefines trope. Watch carefully where Rocky is in the incredibly shot, as it perfectly puts each character exactly where they need to be.
The end of this film is more than touching, it is, for any fan of the series, the most complete moment in the proud life of Rocky and will move most to tears. What that is and how we end up there, I will not dare reveal, but is probably the single best movie moment of the year, if not more. Creed knows that the Rocky series has never truly been about boxing even though that’s the conceit it uses to bring the message. That message has always been about love and loss and fighting, fighting to keep moving forward. So too, here, and while our love for Rocky has been an up and down affair, we have never stopped wanting him to keep fighting. Stallone has always managed to find the right words in his Rocky films to offer the right sentiment for the time he was living in, and when that speech comes here, it’s especially effective. Time and patience are the strongest warriors and Rocky Balboa has faced them each with a courage and will that inspires millions. Adonis Creed might well be the one to continue that fight.
Ryan Coogler (screenplay), Aaron Covington(screenplay)
Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler (screenplay), Aaron Covington(screenplay)
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson