When we first meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, he is a troubled pre-teen in juvie. His mother died a couple years ago, and he doesn’t have a dad. A visit from a woman named Mary Anne gives Adonis his “forever” home, and a legacy. He is the illegitimate son of world-champion boxer Apollo Creed, and Mary Anne is Creed’s widow. A quick clarification, since this seemed to confuse a fair amount of the audience in the screening I was in: Mary Anne is not Adonis’ biological mother. He calls her “Ma” because those are her initials and yes, she becomes a surrogate mother to him.
As an adult, Donnie works a stable, white collar desk job by day, but by night, he boxes in underground fights in Tijuana. After over a dozen wins, Donnie decides he wants to fight full-time. Mary Anne doesn’t want to see Donnie follow his father’s fate, but she also knows that a true boxer can’t be swayed from his passion. When Donnie can’t find someone willing to train him in Los Angeles, he travels to Philadelphia, finds Rocky Balboa, and talks the retired boxer into training him.
From that point, it is pretty much a beat-by-beat retelling of Rocky. Donnie meets and falls in love with Bianca, a musician who lives in his building (though she is far more confident and self-assured than Adrian was) and Donnie is challenged to a fight by the current world champion light heavyweight after various circumstances disqualify more experienced boxers from the fight. He is the underdog, laughed at because he came from nowhere, but earns respect in the ring.
Creed is one of those difficult-to-review movies because there is nothing bad about it, but there is nothing special that makes it stand out. It is literally a beat-for-beat reboot of the original Rocky (even down to the injured eye in the big fight). This works for Creed: it is a solid, tried-and-true format, and this is not the kind of movie that needs a new “spin” or twist. But it doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. Ten minutes into the film and I could count down to the film’s end by matching scenes mentally with scenes from Rocky.
Director Ryan Coogler, in his second feature outing, proves to be a solid, confident director. Fight scenes are not easy to direct and less talented directors often shoot fights (boxing or other) in close-up because it hides poor choreography and lazy direction. Coogler has no need for this, and the fights are full-screen and beautiful. It doesn’t hurt that real boxers portray Donnie’s competition, but Coogler makes sure that the “stage fighting” looks as genuine as the real thing (something that, sadly, cannot be said about Rocky – there are mile-wide gaps between fists and jaws).
Michael B. Jordan does a wonderful job as Donnie, and he clearly put in the training, making him look and act like a real boxer. Jordan, while he doesn’t have the dumb charm that Rocky Balboa has (something that Sylvester Stallone still plays with with sweet goofiness, even as Rocky has matured) doesn’t try to “recreate” Rocky or Apollo’s characters; rather, he is his own man. The chemistry between Jordan and Stallone is genuine and appealing. Without it, there wouldn’t be a movie.
Creed contains a few homages to the original Rocky. Rocky still has a pet turtle, and he trains Donnie by having him chase a chicken. Since Donnie doesn’t have that Philly “mushmouth” accent, they pit him against a competitor with a Liverpool “mushmouth.” Unfortunately, the “homage” to Rocky’s triumphant stair climb comes across as a cheesy modern update that was forced into a training montage.
Stallone said it best during the press conference for the film: don’t look at this movie as Rocky VII; look at it as Creed I. There is no doubt that this is a cleverly done reboot, done with love by those involved. Just don’t get your expectations too high.