1. Michael B. Jordan. Michael B. Jordan solidified in leading man status in an endearing and dynamic performance as Donnie Johnson/Adonis Creed—the product of an Apollo Creed’s (Carl Weathers) infidelity. He's a natural fighter as illustrated by the first glimpse of a young Donnie. Apollo’s late wife, Mary Anne (played by the ageless legend Phylicia Rashad) realizes that this love-starved orphan is a piece of her husband, and she adopts him. The shadow of his father’s accomplishments and his adoptive mother's expectations have previously overwhelmed his own desire to fight professionally.
And what a fighter he is. Jordan clearly spent intense months in training to transform into a powerhouse fighter on the rise. Combine the muscles, the speedbag and shadow-boxing prowess and the masterfully shot fight scenes, I wholeheartedly believe Jordan as a boxer with an unshakable spirit.
Jordan processes Donnie's drive and into something that's irresistibly endearing but insanely powerful. Donnie adorably clings to Rocky like a barnacle, calling him “Unc” after their second meeting, and making himself useful while hoping to unlock secrets about the father he never knew. If anyone could drag an aging Rocky out of his slow shuffle towards death and back into the land of the living, it's Jordan's Donnie.
2. Rocky. It would be incredibly easy for "Creed" to treat Rocky with kid gloves, make him the Buzz Aldrin of Boxing, an aging hero still wowing fans and cashing in on his celebrity, but they didn’t. While Philadelphia is an urban monument to Rocky's legendary career, time has the man on the ropes. He spends his nights at his small restaurant and his days in the cemetery. He bumbles through life with the achy gait and cynical wisdom of an old man who's suffered so much, he's stopped living and growing. Sylvester Stallone is extraordinarily good here, hiding real pain and loneliness behind a curmudgeonly exterior and coffee-ground grit of a voice.
There is a shot in the film in which Rocky looms blurrily in the background like a ghost, watching Donnie train. It’s a bone-chilling representation of what time and circumstance has done to the once great Rocky Balboa. Where is the fighting spirit of a champion? It emerges in a much more important way, teased out by Donnie's stubborn love and the new people he brings into his life.
3. Training Sequences. Everyone has seen the classic "Rocky" training montages—punching the frozen flanks of beef, one-armed push-ups, running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (as a cheerleader in high school, I weight-trained to "Eye Of The Tiger"). "Creed" pays homage to them in its own unique and contemporary way by nixing the now clichéd showiness, doubling down on the emotion and pragmatism, and building to a crescendo so stirring that left me more than a little misty-eyed. The stunning visual imagery reaches the climax during the awe-inspiring big fight that employs real life boxers and single-shot sequences.
4. “Creed” is not “Rocky VII.” “Creed” is not another “Rocky” movie. Written and directed by Ryan Coolger ("Fruitvale Station"), it expands and extends the “Rocky” universe and is fully formed around this dynamic character of Donnie. As a young black man in 2015, Donnie’s world is different than Rocky’s. The clothes, fears, wins and dialogue are all different. There’s an entire scene dedicated to the urban dialect, particularly the word “jawn” that will make Philly natives smile. I also grinned at a scene in which Rocky was introduced to soul food. The simple authenticity is necessary and appreciated.
5. Bianca. Thankfully Donnie does more than just train while in Philly. He also falls for a free-spirited, no-nonsense singer named Bianca, who is wonderfully portayed by "Selma's" Tessa Thompson. Time is besting her too as she is a musician suffering from degenerative hearing loss. One day, she will be completely deaf. It's motivation for her and Donnie.
It's refreshing that Bianca wasn’t repulsed by the barbarism of boxing. I always balk that boxing is a violent, unsanitary sport (spit buckets and blood on the gloves are all hive-inducing concepts for this germophobe) but two rounds in, I have already have a favorite and I’m hollering louder than their cornermen (although “stop letting him hit you, dumbass” isn’t nearly as productive). Bianca is similarly attracted to Donnie’s ambition and passion until it damages hers. She’s lovestruck but not lovestupid, and that's a heroine done refreshingly right.
Admittedly, I would’ve liked her story to be fleshed out more, but since "Creed" is the most successful movie of the entire "Rocky" franchise, I'm sure they are just saving it for the sequel.
Photo Credits: variety.com