Grade: A-

2015 may go in the books as the year Hollywood decided to recondition well-established franchises for a new generation (with the upcoming ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, the abysmal ‘Jurassic World’ from this past summer, and now ‘Creed’).

The first ‘Rocky’ movie, released in 1976, took home the Best Picture Oscar. There would, assuredly, be a sequel; at the time, Sylvester Stallone said he would end the series with ‘Rocky III’ and kill off the titular character. Of course, the series didn’t end there, and Stallone trifled with the idea of killing off Rocky in ‘Rocky V’. Stallone is now 69 years old, and he is reprising his role as Rocky Balboa for the seventh time in ‘Creed’.

In the prologue, we are introduced to 12-year-old Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky’s former opponent, trainer, and friend Apollo Creed. Donnie bounces between juvenile detention centers in LA until Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), adopts the young man and gives him a home. Seventeen years later, we see Donnie resigning from his finance job to pursue his love of boxing. He heads to Philadelphia, tracks down Rocky Balboa who is still wearing that hat and still tending the restaurant named after his late wife. Donnie convinces Rocky to train him, and this is where the past and present merge.

The seventh movie in the series doesn’t deviate too far from the classic formula used in the previous six pictures. But, thanks to this screenplay co-written by director Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, Coogler’s steady hand behind the camera, and Jordan’s engrossing performance in front of it, ‘Creed’ emulates the established formula faultlessly. Stallone has mastered this role, and slips into it very comfortably.

The movie tries something new without betraying its roots. There are tie-ins to previous films but not as much as you would expect. We see the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art only once, and Bill Conti’s signature score operates with restraint and is reserved just for those big moments. Donnie does have a love interest – an affable musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson). The relationship between these two echoes the sweet, supportive one between Rocky and Adrian.

Donnie, like Rocky 39 years ago, is the underdog who is training for a fight against the world champion, while Rocky takes on the role that previously belonged to Mickey – the old mentor figure who finds a reason to keep going. Jordan and Stallone are just as great together as Stallone with was Burgess Meredith in the first three ‘Rocky’ films, and there truly are moments of beauty in seeing the former champ now pass on the knowledge that was imparted to him, not just about how to handle oneself in the ring but also outside the ring.

One of the best scenes: Rocky places Donnie in front of a mirror and tells him that the greatest opponent he will ever fight (in the ring or in life) is the reflection staring back at him. It’s a line of dialogue that took me back to ‘Rocky II’ – even though the film’s tagline stated that this was the rematch of the century, the villain wasn’t Apollo Creed – it was Rocky himself and his overblown ego. The mirror scene is also representative of Donnie’s identity crisis; Donnie Johnson, and Adonis Creed – in fulfilling his father’s legacy or fulfilling his own expectations. Rocky, too, faces a battle and I won’t say anything more about this. A scene involving Rocky trekking up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art nearly brought me to tears.

There are some great filmmaking choices here. We see the statistics of every boxer as an onscreen graphic superimposing a freeze frame. The fight scenes in ‘Creed’ are expertly handled: tracking shots, chilling close-ups, and the refined sound design which allows us to hear Rocky’s voice from the ringside – we are in the ring with Donnie. The better entries in this series aren’t exactly about boxing – they’re about a boxer and the colorful people surrounding him; the boxing scenes in the first ‘Rocky’ picture amounted to maybe ten minutes of screen time. The results of the fights, rousing as they have been, never mattered as much as why our protagonist was fighting. At 133 minutes, ‘Creed’ is the longest entry in the ‘Rocky’ series but I can’t think of a scene I would take out. We are drawn into the lives of these characters the hard way; not as a nostalgic corollary, but through a sharply penned screenplay that takes its time with fully fleshed-out characters. That’s why you believe in the relationships between these characters, and that’s why when that big fight inevitably arrives, you’ll find yourself with sweaty palms.

Coogler and Jordan teamed up for the director’s first feature-length film, ‘Fruitvale Station’, in 2013 (well worth seeing). We’re in the early stages of a very exciting filmmaking career and acting career for these two. Who would have thought we needed another ‘Rocky’ movie? ‘Creed’ is arguably the best movie in the series since the original ‘Rocky’. I say bring on ‘Rocky 8’. QED.

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