“Rocky Balboa, I Am Ready to Fight”: Creed

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Creed
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Opens November 25

In a grungy venue in Tijuana, a fighter called Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) boxes in all black—right down to the athletic tape he wraps around his hands. This is a man who doesn’t want to be found. Twelve hours after the bout, Adonis, in dress shirt and tie, sits behind a desk in Los Angeles, working a finance job. He makes a pivotal decision: He resigns and returns home to his palatial Baldwin Hills residence to inform his mom (Phylicia Rashad) of his plans to devote himself to boxing full-time. She looks into his eyes—one of them bloodshot from the previous night’s fight—and pleads him to reconsider. He jumps ship to Philadelphia, where he sleeps on a mattress on a floor, and seeks out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), an old man who used to be friends with his father.

This is the set-up for Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a Rocky spin-off that posits Adonis—the illegitimate son of Rocky’s greatest ally, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)—as a born fighter struggling to accept the repercussions of his family name. (Given his own name, Jordan is almost absurdly well-cast in this regard.) The raw, self-taught “Donnie” asks Rocky (whom Donnie calls “Unc”) to train him; after some reluctance, the aging loner agrees. Rocky sips coffee and reads the newspaper while walking Donnie through sparring and jump-roping sessions. Stallone provides wonderful touches, like the way he patiently taps a mirror with his glasses while instructing Donnie in the battle of the self. (The mirror is, in effect, Rocky’s chalkboard.)

There’s a compelling subtext here about body decay: Donnie’s girlfriend, aspiring Philly musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), has progressive hearing loss; Rocky, after a fall in a training exercise, gets diagnosed with cancer; and Donnie himself harbors a kind of death wish, as evidenced by his romanticized view of Apollo’s passing in the ring. Coogler seems close to pushing this thread to the fore: The details of Donnie’s climactic battle with Liverpool’s “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew)—enormous swelling surrounding one of Donnie’s eyes; scattered glimpses of ice bags, spilling blood, and stained towels—are often more nauseating than uplifting. Mostly, though, Coogler traffics in familiar imagery from the saga (Adrian’s Restaurant, Mighty Mick’s Gym) and an affirmative view of the fighting spirit. (Even chemotherapy can be handled with a training montage.) While Coogler’s style is generally either functional or predictable (there’s a bit of slow-motion running straight out of his earlier Fruitvale Station), he reveals unexpected chops with ambitious, circling Steadicam moves, including one fight that he and DP Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) capture in a single take.

Creed hews to the template of the original Rocky—an overmatched nobody taking on a world-class contender under the mentorship of a sage trainer—while making room for gestures that accommodate boxing’s contemporary reality: Rocky may drill Donnie by having him corral a loose chicken, but the young fighter also spends his off-hours mimicking YouTube clips of old fights or studying HBO segments that profile potential opponents. (Coogler even introduces a freeze-frame technique that lists the statistical information—record, ranking, nickname—of Donnie’s opponents.) Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington’s use of the 1976 movie is detrimental in some respects: Bellew, for instance, is an imposing presence but no match for the galvanizing charisma and flash Weathers brought to the role of Apollo. But their investment in the series’ past pays great dividends in the poignant Stallone performance. His Rocky is a man whose future resides on the walls in old photographs and accolades, and yet here he stands, waking up at 5:45 in the morning, making the rounds.

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