You can look at the new sports drama from director Ryan Coogler two ways. It’s either the seventh film in the Rocky series or it’s a spin-off. Maybe both. Overseas it’s actually called Rocky 7. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is still there in his hometown of Philadelphia, running his restaurant, and seemingly content to do so, but this time around he’s a secondary character in his own saga.
The real story is about Adonis Johnson Creed (Michael B. Jordan), a young boxer with great potential who wants his turn in the ring. Creed is the illegitimate son of one-time world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, only he doesn’t know it. He’s the end result of an affair the champion boxer once had before he died. The man never knew he ever had a son.
Because his mother also passed away, throughout Adonis’ childhood, the troubled boy went from one foster home to another with extra time spent in several juvenile detention centers. In an introductory sequence, having discovered that her deceased husband had a child, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) arrives at one of those centers and offers the boy a permanent home. She wants to raise him in the comfortable surroundings built by his father.
Jump to present day. Adonis is now in his early twenties, still living comfortably with Mary Anne in palatial surroundings and working in an L.A. office, but that new departmental promotion means nothing. He wants to box. It’s all he can think about. And mom is not happy.
“Apollo didn’t get hurt,” she states in a moment of anger to her adopted son. “He got killed!” Within minutes, the young man’s mother gives every reason why becoming a boxer should be the last thing on his to-do list, telling him how often she had to carry her husband up the stairs because he couldn’t see or do it for himself. “You want brain damage?” she cries in a desperate attempt for her son to see reason. But the young man can’t be told. He’s the son of Apollo Creed and he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. He quits his office job, packs his bags and heads to Philadelphia with one thing in mind.
When Adonis arrives in Pennsylvania, his first step is to convince an aging Rocky Balboa to train him. “I got plans for my life and this ain’t part of it,” Rocky tells Adonis. But, of course, Rocky caves and takes on the Burgess Meredith role of the first two Rocky movies; he trains the boy to fight. It’s only when the current title holder, British boxer Ricky Conlan (real-life cruiserweight, Tony Bellow) learns that Apollo Creed’s son is in training that the Liverpudlian professional demands a match. Now Adonis Johnson Creed has something to train for.
This is the first film for Rocky that wasn’t written by Stallone; the screenplay is by director Cooper with co-writer Aaron Covington, and while all the trappings of those early movies are here – the training montages, the emotional, behind-the scenes drama, echoes of the Rocky fanfare and the obligatory climactic big fight – there’s an overall different look and rhythm to the piece. Those early Rocky features were shot with a standard frame, but here cinematographer Maryse Alberti shoots for a widescreen, opening up the look to something broader and giving the film a less intimate feel.
The movie also feels too long, an issue with many recent features. Creed tends to sag in the middle, particularly when the story centers on the love relationship with Bianca, the attractive singer-songwriter played by Tessa Thompson. Thompson is fine, and when the character starts to warm to her Philly apartment neighbor, that annoying, antagonistic manner she initially possess dissolves to the point where you even begin to like her. Interestingly, the character has progressive hearing loss, a plot point covered when Adonis first asks about the petite hearing aids he notices she wears, but what appears like something important is never mentioned again. Depending on box-office, maybe it’s groundwork for a future conflict in a possible Creed sequel. Whatever it is, something so seemingly of consequence has oddly nothing to do with this story.
Whether you’ll like young Adonis Creed is difficult to say; he’s moody, single-minded and doesn’t always listen to reason, as evidenced in those early moments when his mother’s impassioned request to think twice about boxing falls on deaf ears. Knowing the direction the character is taking, and knowing what it did to his champion father, it’s difficult to sensibly cheer him on, though that’s exactly what the film expects us to do. Unlike the recent Southpaw, Creed is more fantasy, a boxer’s wish-fulfillment fairytale – which Rocky always was – but the reality of the toll boxing can do to a person is still in evidence.
The film’s saving grace, however, is Stallone. There’s something both comforting and uplifting about meeting his signature, warm-hearted character again and it’s only when we’re sharing time with Balboa that the film entertains. The moment Rocky meets young Creed for the first time and says “How y’doin’?” with that unmistakable, deep-throated Stallone delivery, you may smile, even laugh. It’s like accidentally bumping into an ol’ buddy you never realized you missed and you’re perfectly happy to spend as much time talking to him as you can.
As for the big fight, it’s as expected – a crowd-pleasing, well choreographed battle as the underdog goes for broke and makes his stand against a towering champion from overseas. The result of a will-he-or-won’t-he-win harkens back to the original Rocky where the result is decided by the judges, not by a knockout. If the makers are hoping to spin-off completely without Rocky and head in a new future direction with young Creed at its center, then the character needs to be a lot more interesting, and certainly more likable, than presented here.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 133 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)