Creed and all the images you see in this review are owned by MGM Pictures
Directed by Ryan Coogler
I have this DVD boxset with the first three Rocky films in it that I think my dad got one Christmas. He didn’t watch them all that often so I ended up holding onto the boxset and I would watch those three ALL the damn time. A lot of people like the fourth film, but for me, Rocky has always been the first three movies which creates a perfect arc as Rocky starts out as a bum, eventually beats the champ, and they become friends afterwards. Hell, it even ends right where Rocky begins (inside a crappy little gym) only now with Apollo Creed there as a reminder of how much has changed in such a short amount of time. I didn’t catch Rocky Balboa until its home release, but it felt a perfect swansong for the series and Stallone proved once again that he really is a talented guy and deserved winning that Oscar. Now we’re back with yet another film in that universe, but the dynamics have changed. Not only is not really a Rocky film anymore, it’s not even a Stallone film considering that the writing and directing was handled by Ryan Coogler who himself is to proving to be an immense talent very early in his career. Will this be an inspired continuation of series that still manages to be its own film, or will this be a disappointing cash grab on the level of Rocky 5 considering they pretty much have the same premise? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about Adonis “Donnie” Johnson who is the son of Apollo Creed; the child of one of his mistress and born several months after Apollo’s death which should STILL put him at about 29, but whatever. Continuity in the Rocky series is pretty wonky as it is. Anyway, the kid is eventually found in a youth detention center by Apollo Creed’s widow (Mary Anne Creed played by Phylicia Rashad who FINALLY managed to be a movie that’s NOT directed by Tyler Perry) and she adopts the boy. We cut to when he’s an adult and despite having money and having a good life, he still can’t seem to resist the urge to fight, so between shifts at his day job he fights in low level boxing matches under the name Donnie Johnson. It’s not enough for him though, so he decides to quit his job, move to Philly, and get his father’s best friend to train him to be a professional boxer. Will Rocky be willing to step back into that life after leaving it behind him? Will Donnie finally find what is he’s looking for if he can convince Rocky to train him and put him in fights? How many times will YOU cry watching this?
This is damn near perfect. It works as a continuation of the Rocky films and as a standalone boxing film. It manages to be a celebration of everything we loved about the other films in this series while bringing something fresh to the table. As far as flaws, there really aren’t any in this other than a couple of nitpicks here and there, but even those are so minor as to not take away from what this film does right. The only reason this film will piss you off is that it reminds you how much time Stallone is wasting on garbage like The Expendables when he could be making films like this. He doesn’t necessarily have to keep making ROCKY films, but the guy has proven himself to be a damn good dramatic actor in movies such as Copland, yet he continues to try and relive his glory days to diminishing returns. Granted, the Rocky films are a part of those glory days, but they always felt different from the rest of Stallone’s filmography. He never seemed like SUPER STAR SLY STALLONE like he did in movies like Demolition Man or Judge Dredd. Rocky Balboa really was a strong and complex character in his own right, and it continues to be the case in this film.
We know that we’re gonna love Rocky no matter what though. Hell, we forgave him for Rocky 5 which, while not as bad as everyone says it is, is a pretty piss poor Rocky film. The challenge with THIS movie is selling us on Donnie Johnson who is someone we’ve never seen before and therefore has to build up a connection the same way the original Rocky film did for its protagonist. I think they succeed here and while the script itself is fantastic, there’s no denying how well Michael B Jordan plays the part. Hopefully we can all forgive him for Fantastic Four now because he’s working his ass off for this character. He’s tough and determined, but he’s also lighthearted and even shows genuine fear from time to time. I don’t know if Stallone will be back for any more of these, but I’d definitely see another movie about this character based on Jordan’s performance here.
I also liked Bianca (Tessa Thompson) who becomes his love interest in the movie, but she feels a bit under used here as she’s pretty much playing the same part that Adrian played in the first Rocky film. She’s not the same character or has a similar personality, but her presence in this story and what she does throughout is very similar. Her character could have had a bit more going on in the story, but she’s still very enjoyable to watch when she’s on screen. Also, this isn’t really a complaint (more of an observation), but the bad guy boxer (Tony Bellew who looks like a Tom Hardy understudy) is pretty underdeveloped and is just a brute as far as the movie is concerned. While I guess I wouldn’t fault someone for having a problem with that, the fact is that the focus of this movie isn’t the boxing. In fact, out of all the movies this might be the one where boxing is the least important aspect and the match itself has little significance. In Rocky, the match against Apollo Creed would be this loser’s only chance to prove himself. In Rocky 2, the rematch was for him to not just prove himself, but to show that he’s willing to go the distance for his family and winning this match means providing for them. Hell, even though Rocky 3 and 4 don’t have as high stakes, the conflict still centers around one opponent. Rocky 5 and Rocky Balboa are kind of different beasts all together, but there’s no doubt that what happens at the end of those movies in the ring (real one or in a parking lot) has significance for the character. This match? It’s really not that important. Donnie isn’t hurting for money or even in danger of losing the opportunity to box. He doesn’t have some Faustian bargain with someone about the outcome of this match, or even have a reason to hate the other boxer all that much. This aspect though is one of the things that make this movie distinct from the other Rocky films. This isn’t some kid who’s struggling to get recognized or trying to build a life out of this. He’s rich! He’s been officially adopted by Apollo’s widow and while he’s not spoiled, he doesn’t really want for anything. Hell, if the beginning is any indication, the dude is a hard worker and very smart. Despite all this though, there’s something inside of him that’s burning to break free which is pretty much what Rocky was going through in the last film. Donnie never knew his father other than by reputation. They have this connection in their love to fight, but Donnie still feels lost and trying to find his place in relation to his father who was once a legend. THAT’S why the final fight and who he’s fighting is not the focus of the movie, and that’s why it’s not an issue here.
There are some actual flaws though and while the issues here don’t detract all that much, they are worth mentioning. There’s a subplot early on with one of Creed’s sons from his marriage who refuses to train Donnie for… some reason and even has his own badass boxer that he uses to teach Donnie a lesson in humility early on. The thing is that these two completely drop out of the movie pretty early on and it’s just strange that they never get back to them at any point. The boxer is supposed to go up against the big bad of the movie, but they get in a tussle before the match which means he backs out and we never hear from them again; not even when it’s announced that Donnie is going to go up against the same guy!
The other problem I have is the execution of what happens to Rocky at the halfway point of the movie. They do SOMETHING with him that has to be handled with a lot if care, and while I DO think it works, I don’t think they pulled it off as well as they could have. Without spoiling it, what the script does to Rocky is such a gut punch to so many people that it seems a bit… off to make it something that ultimately motives Donnie to train harder while helping Rocky fight… whatever it is that happens to him. This is something that SHOULD make the boxing match totally irrelevant and they do touch upon that, but I guess that having Rocky’s battle against… whatever it is be a parallel to Donnie running a mile further today than he did yesterday pulls a bit of the gravity from what’s going on with Rocky. Is it a good thing to give a hopeful portrayal of something that happens to too many people, or does it belittle the suffering that others go through by turning this struggle into a training montage? I don’t know, but it’s something that stuck out to me. More into the realm of nitpicks, it’s sad that Paulie is no longer here, but I get why they cut him out. Despite how amazing it would be to see him and Donnie pick a fight, he might have been a distraction and would have pulled focus away from Donnie who really is the star of the film. The movie is careful not to make this a movie about Rocky but to have him be a key figure in this kid’s life, so having Paulie yell racist things at the kid would have pushed it more into the direction of a Rocky film instead of a Donnie film.
Also, I don’t like the cover of Gonna Fly Now that they made for this movie. They tease the classic Rocky music throughout and you’re just sitting there WAITING for them to find the right moment to let it loose! Now I get the reason why they wanted to do a cover here instead of the original, but the cover they have just did not work for me. I’m fine with a cover, just not that one. The rest of the music though is fantastic with some new tracks and remixes of old ones peppered throughout, and they save Going the Distance for that final fight which is just perfect.
Look, I was probably going to love this movie no matter what considering what the Rocky movies mean to me. Some of my enthusiasm for this movie might be due to nostalgia for these characters and this world we’ve visited time and time before, and there’s no real way to separate something like that from a viewer’s critical analysis. Hell, just wait for the new Star Wars film if you want to see that on a MASSIVE scale. Still, there’s no denying just how much of this movie is well executed on technical level, and all of the new elements really do work and fit into this world. This really is a great movie that’s absolutely worth seeing, but if you aren’t a Rocky fan or haven’t watched all the films prior to this one (except five which you can easily skip) then this movie may not be for you. That’s not necessarily a knock against it the same way that every subsequent episode of a television series is work because they’re less and less able to stand on their own. For its audience, they couldn’t ask for a better continuation of such a great film series and I highly you run out and see it if you are a part of that. Maybe Stallone’s got one more in him, maybe he doesn’t. Either way, I’m glad to see Rocky at least one more time.
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