After spending a weekend on the couch, punching my psyche, running through cable edits of the previous “Rocky” films, I can’t say I was looking forward to “Creed.” The boxing scenes always had the feeling of superheroes trading cosmic punches than actual boxing. It made it hard to suspend my disbelief and just enjoy myself. That’s the problem with dramas though, they demand emotion, which is difficult to fake. Action movies ask for you to chase the unbelievable. Done well with smart pacing and good performances a drama with action can be very memorable.
“Creed” is Rocky Balboa’s one time rival, long-time friend’s illegitimate son, kicked around juvenile detention centers and foster homes before the widow of Apollo Creed finds him and raising him as her own. It’s quite touching, actually. The adult Adonis Creed sneaks off to Mexico to take fights and more than holds his own. Eventually, he wants to break out and follow in his father’s footsteps and so begins our hero’s journey. Unlike “Lord of the Rings,” Adonis must make it to Mount Doom and throw himself into a ring with a fiery world-champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, who is about to be incarcerated and probably has a more interesting backstory. Spin-off? Anyone? Anyway, Creed Jr. gives up his job, moves to Philly to track down Rocky Balboa to gain the skills, a girlfriend to distract him and the opportunity to punch his way to the top.
The good news is Michael B. Jordan can act. “Fruitville Station” was a career-making breakout role and thankfully, no one remembers the recent Fantastic Four debacle. The discipline put in for this role was obviously a massive undertaking, which is apparent physically. Jordan’s focused, wannabe boxer is aloof enough to make your trust where his character’s focus lies. Adonis has a good job, which we see him at briefly, but never get the feeling of his dissatisfaction with a privileged life. We don’t ever see him struggle against the banality of an office: the tired banter of a break room, the monotony of a computer screen, chain of command. Time is not a friend of this narrative. Some exposition is also rough to swallow. When Adonis crashes Rocky’s restaurant in their first meeting he knows so many things about Rocky’s and his father’s past, but where did he hear it from? His adoptive mother sure wasn’t going to provide him with stories of boxing glory or back alley fights. The last thing she wants for her son is to end up a disabled adult or dead like his father, so where did he get all this information?
There’s also a love interest, because there has to be.
Then the training begins, grudgingly. Adonis shows up early and often to both the gym and to convince Rocky to train him, so you know where it’s going and that’s okay. What isn’t okay is a world champion boxer taking a fight with someone so green. Also, would any boxing organization let someone convicted of a crime with an impending jail sentence into the ring? I doubt it. Not in this day and age. Timing is an issue here as well. The training is more and here and there without a strong montage that makes “Rocky” movies kitschy and better paced. Adonis take one fight, wins it and is on his way to the top. He gets an offer to fight for the title, but he needs more motivation, so he fights with his girlfriend and Rocky is diagnosed with cancer. Eye of the tiger, indeed. Now that Adonis has the motivation to fight metaphorically and physically he will fight everyone’s battles by fighting his own.
Here’s the thing: I like “Creed.” It’s satisfying and enjoyable in moments. Sylvester Stallone plays the elder Rocky in a pretty fragile state without a complete macho facade, but written with motives for his choices – having lost everyone he cared about to death or distance. Rocky is the wise mentor as is called for. Adonis is flawed in his pride that Rocky sees and accepts. Life can’t always be explained. There are things they have to go through and there are no shortcuts.
The fight scenes are strong as well. Close pops and snaps pull you in and out of the boxer’s point of view. After seeing the slugfests of previous Rocky films, there are more misses here, which does a more effective job and provides a hyper-real experience. Filmmakers have a lot to draw on how to shoot hand-to-hand combat than they did when the original film came out and it works.
Will “Creed” win any awards? I doubt it, but it will be seen by more people than anything that does because cable loves a good movie marathon these days and that’s where it will find a home. I suppose I will revisit all these again on a Saturday 12 months from now when they inevitably announce “Creed 2: MMA.”