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"CREED"
(2015) (Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The illegitimate son of a famous boxer tries to make a name for himself by using his father's former opponent as his trainer.
PLOT:
Adonis Johnson (MICHAEL B. JORDAN) has been a fighter ever since he was a troubled kid going through foster homes and juvenile detention. It wasn't until Mary Anne Creed (PHYLICIA RASHAD) took him in as a boy and raised him as her son that he learned why that seems to be in his blood.

She was married to the late, former heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed, and Adonis is his illegitimate son via an affair he had. Adonis ended up growing up in a lavish lifestyle in Los Angeles where he now has a good job in the financial services sector. Yet, he can't shake the boxing bug that he temporarily satiates via unsanctioned bouts in Tijuana.

When he's finally had enough of that, he moves to Philadelphia in hopes of convincing his father's former and equally famous opponent, Rocky Balboa (SYLVESTER STALLONE), to be his trainer. The widowed ex-champ is reluctant at first, but Adonis eventually convinces him, and thus Rocky sets out training him old school. At the same time, Adonis ends up falling for his downstairs apartment neighbor, Bianca (TESSA THOMPSON), a singer who's pursuing her career despite progressive hearing loss.

As Adonis ends up improving his skills, and once his pedigree is leaked out, he draws the attention of the manager for current light heavyweight champion of the world, Ricky Conlan (TONY BELLEW). The latter is headed to prison soon and his manager wants to get in one last fight, so he sets up the bout with Rocky and Adonis. From that point on, they train for the big bout, all while Rocky must contend with an unexpected health issue.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When it comes to sports movies, fans obviously have their favorites. For baseball, it's often between "Field of Dreams," "The Natural" and "Bull Durham" (along with plenty of others). Football fans debate whether it's "Rudy," "Friday Night Lights" or something older like "North Dallas Forty."

Boxing movies are no different. Some prefer "The Fighter" versus "Million Dollar Baby" or "Cinderella Man." Of course, the debate usually settles down between Robert De Niro's "Raging Bull" and Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky."

While the former is good, I'll take the latter any day, not only because it's a terrific flick (it won the Oscar for Best Picture), but also due to the back-story of what it took for Stallone to sell the screenplay, especially with the caveat that he be attached to star. Both that and the film were true underdog stories and that made the whole package all the more endearing and amazing.

Alas, since it was such a huge critical and box office success, it spawned a plethora of sequels -- "Rocky II" (1979), "Rocky III" (1982), "Rocky IV" (1985), "Rocky V" (1990) and "Rocky Balboa" (2006) -- that, natch, couldn't live up to their predecessor. While some were decent, the series obviously started showing its age, especially with Stallone being 60-years-old when the last one came out.

Thus, when I heard the actor was going to reprise his signature role nine years later in "Creed," I have to admit I cringed a bit. After all, George Foreman was pushing his luck at 45 to become the oldest heavyweight champion. Heck, Burgess Meredith was 69-years-old when he starred in "Rocky" as the contender's grizzled trainer, Mickey.

Perhaps it's fitting then that Stallone now takes over the old trainer part in this film that's part sequel, part reboot of the franchise. And you know what? The actor knocks it out of the park in what's his best role in a long time. While it's likely a long shot he'll win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, it's a good bet he'll be nominated.

As might Michael B. Jordan -- reunited with his "Fruitvale Station" director Ryan Coogler -- in a winning role playing a new variation of the underdog boxing contender. The difference here, of course, and perhaps suggested by the title, is that he's the illegitimate son of Rocky's former main competitor, Apollo Creed.

Despite growing up in a life of opulence with his adoptive mother (Phylicia Rashad playing the late boxer's cheated upon wife who inherited his riches), Adonis Johnson is drawn to fighting as a boy and then boxing as a young adult. When he realizes he can't suppress it any longer, he seeks out Rocky to be his trainer.

The former champ, now running a restaurant named after his late wife and living a life of modesty, is reluctant, but probably to no one's surprise, eventually accepts the offer. What follows is the standard boxing movie formula of training montages, a subplot with a love interest (a good Tessa Thompson), a nasty eventual competitor (Tony Bellew) and moments of self-doubt, inspiration and more.

That might make it sound like just more of the same old, same old, and at its most basic it is, as there's nothing really that new that can be done with this well-worn genre. Yet, Coogler -- who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington (and, apparently, an un-credited Stallone) -- manages to breathe enough new life into this offering to make it seem fresh and even new to a degree.

The boxing footage is nothing short of fantastic, far more brutally realistic than in most such flicks, and the second bout is amazing in that it was shot in just one camera take (meaning no edits, and an terrific bit of camera and performer choreography to pull it off). And when strains of Bill Conti's original score occasionally surface at key moments, they still manage to raise the old goose bumps.

The romantic chemistry between Jordan and Thompson feels right and works as intended, but it's the chemistry between him and Stallone that makes the film work as well as it does. Unencumbered by having to get back into the ring as the contender, Stallone seems relaxed and delivers a terrific and occasionally tremendously heartfelt performance. Gonna fly now indeed. "Creed" is surprisingly good, and rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 18, 2015 / Posted November 25, 2015


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