Movie sequels thrive on similarity. Sequels either carbon copy the original or follow-up it up with something similar but different. “Fruitvale Station” writer-director Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, could have taken advantage of an obvious franchise title like “Rocky 7.” Mind you, Stallone returns as Rocky Balboa, but he doesn’t put on the gloves. Nevertheless, like his struggling protagonist, Coogler sought to deliver something similar but different with the Oscar-winning franchise. Indeed, “Creed” does carbon copy a lot of the original “Rocky” (1976), but the action occurs from the perspective of an African-American. Sophomore helmer Coogler and co-scribe Aaron Covington focus on the late Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, so the film qualifies more as a spin-off. An aspiring pugilist in his own right who since his youth has refused to knuckle under to adversity, Adonis Johnson insists on carving out a name and a reputation for himself without exploiting his father’s legacy. Like Rocky, Adonis has boxing in his blood. Unfortunately, despite his undefeated light-heavyweight record of fifteen knock-outs in Mexican boxing matches, our hero cannot recruit a trainer. Predictably, Adonis must surmount similar obstacles to those Rocky faced to arrange a bout with a champ. Along the way, Adonis redeems himself, respects the father that he never knew, and appreciates the mentor who prepares him for the arena—Rocky Balboa.
“Creed” opens in 1998, in a Los Angeles County jail, as a wayward youth, Adonis (Alex Henderson of “Supremacy”) is getting beaten up by an older adolescent because his opponent uttered ill words about his late mother. Before the jailers can break-up the brawl, Adonis devastates his enemy. Later, as he is cooling off in a holding cell, Adonis is surprised when Apollo Creed’s wife Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad of “Good Deeds”) persuades him to come home with her. Subsequently, “Creed” flashes forward to 2015. An older, adult Adonis (Michael B. Jordan of “Chronicle”) knocks out a competitor at a weekend boxing tournament in Tijuana, Mexico. The following day at work, despite having gotten a promotion, Adonis resigns because the job doesn’t suit him. He fails to attract a trainer at the Los Angeles-based Delphi Gym where his father got his start. The owner displays nothing but contempt for him. An irate Adonis promises his Mustang to anyone who can deck him, and Danny ‘Stuntman’ Wheeler (newcomer Andre Ward) promptly puts him to sleep. Adonis bids goodbye to Mary Ann, and relocates to Philadelphia, where he approaches Rocky about training him. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) still runs the same restaurant that he managed in “Rocky Balboa,” but his wife Adrian and his quarrelsome pal Paulie have both passed away. Initially, Rocky refuses Adonis’s offer. Nevertheless, the tenacious Adonis keeps bugging him and eventually persuades the Italian Stallion to teach him. The training montages are both amusing and challenging. Rocky clocks Adonis chasing chickens in a coop to enhance his timing. While he sits in the gym reading the newspaper with his spectacles, Rocky has Adonis skipping rope and shadow boxing. At one point, Rocky changes the gym where they train and Adonis has to follow him on foot while he drives his van across town. The training sequences will make you perspire, but “Creed” never captures the gritty atmosphere of “Rocky.” If you remember the original “Rocky,” our woebegone hero earned spare change as muscle for a small-time Mafioso. Moreover, Rocky groveled under the harsh verbal abuse of a trainer. Comparatively, the college-educated Adonis has squirreled away sufficient funds to survive until his big break.
After Adonis has settled into his Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, apartment, he finds it difficult to sleep because a downstairs dweller plays her music loud enough to make the floor thump. Adonis meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson of “Selma”), and they are attracted to each other. Whereas Rocky and Adrian in “Rocky” were eking out an existence, Adonis and Bianca are half-way up the ladder. Just as Rocky is transforming Adonis into a top flight contender, the former champ encounters serious medical tribulations that threaten to disrupt their best-laid plans. At the same time, Bianca learns that Adonis has been concealing his heritage from her as Apollo’s illegitimate son. The friendship between Rocky and Adonis and their tenacity to survive everything that life hurls at them elevates “Creed” as an inspirational experience. Of course, the savvy filmmakers draw on our sentiments while Rocky struggles to conquer his medical woes. Naturally, things take an upbeat turn when a pugnacious English pugilist, ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (three time ABA Heavyweight Champion Tony Bellew), challenges Adonis to a fight on HBO. Tony Bellow’s ‘Pretty Ricky’ is reminiscent of Mr. T’s Clubber Lang from “Rocky 3,” and the blood and guts fisticuffs will have you shadow-boxing before the bell sounds.
Although he plays second fiddle to Michael B. Jordan’s prizefighter, Sylvester Stallone steals the picture with a heartfelt performance. Stallone served as one of the producers of “Creed,” but “Creed” doesn’t channel the same vibe of Stallone’s “Rocky” movies. The music differs considerably, and the bittersweet experience of another underdog who triumphs isn’t entirely alike. Interestingly enough, this distinguishes “Creed” from the six previous “Rocky” epics. Coogler stays away from the cute dialogue that Stallone used in his movies. Meantime, the chemistry between the gung-ho Jordan and reluctant Stallone is palatable. They appear as a believable team, and Stallone doesn’t have to ham it up to contend with his young co-star. A sizzling romance between Jordan and Tessa Thompson’s hearing impaired nightclub warbler gives our hero added dimension. Of course, when everything boils down to the final, big bout, “Creed” cashes in on the unbeatable “Rocky” formula. “Creed” may not clinch any Oscars, though talk has been echoing that Stallone will land a Best Supporting Oscar, but it is contagiously entertaining, not only as a date movie but also as a movie about human beings without CGI special effects. A refreshing change from the usual “Rocky” antics, “Creed” pumps fresh blood into old franchise.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts