- Deseret News - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

“CREED” — 3 stars — Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad; PG-13 (violence, language and some sensuality); in general release

The challenge for the “Rocky” sequels was finding creative ways to make Rocky Balboa the underdog when he obviously wasn’t. “Creed,” which is half Rocky sequel and half Rocky spin-off, has the same problem.

“Creed” brings the Rocky saga into the 21st century through bloodlines that go back to the franchise’s roots. Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s nemesis-turned-best-friend. After a troubled early childhood, Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) takes Adonis under her wing. But money and a gift-wrapped career can’t squeeze the boxer out of his blood, and eventually Adonis sets off to Philadelphia in search of his destiny.

When Adonis finds Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), the ex-champion is living a humble lifestyle in his old neighborhood, running an Italian restaurant (Adrian’s) and trying to defer his hometown hero status. Rocky is such a stick in the mud that he still pulls out a newspaper to find out what’s going on in the world.

While Adonis sets about convincing Rocky to train him, half a world away a troubled champ named Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is looking for one last score before starting a prison sentence. There’s not much doubt where things are headed, but a few unexpected hooks keep things interesting.

Along the way, Adonis meets his downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring DJ who keeps him up all night blasting hip-hop music. Their relationship has some nice moments, but as an obvious mirror for Rocky’s courtship with Adrian back in the ‘70s, it is an echo at best.

Even if Creed’s son is the protagonist, the real joy here is seeing Balboa work through his reps. With his days as a champion fighter long gone, we see more clearly that it is the charm that Stallone instills in Rocky that makes him such a beloved character.

Director Ryan Coogler offers up more than your basic underdog story and staging, and makes the material interesting on a visual level as well as emotionally. One of Adonis’s first fights is shot in one continuous take over several minutes, putting you right in the middle of a brutal contest.

Jordan does an excellent job as Adonis, but he can’t overcome “Creed’s” flawed story. Adonis may have suffered through a trail of foster homes and the indignity of illegitimacy, but he’s taken into a wealthy home before he hits his teens, and quits a promising desk job to pursue his aspirations in the ring. He claims that he’s trying to make it on his own, but he only convinces Rocky to train him because he’s Apollo’s son, and by the time he squares off against Conlan, there’s no sense that Adonis is anything but a privileged upstart who hasn’t earned his title shot.

It’s still a fun movie, and “Creed” will offer plenty of nostalgia-heavy payoffs for longtime fans, some that only hardcore Rocky nuts will spy. But even though “Creed” starts off like the original 1976 film, heavy on drama and character, and only partially dependent on the action in the ring, by the time Balboa’s famous theme blares out during the third act, “Creed” finishes more like a “Rocky” sequel.

As long as you’ve seen the ’76 original, which won the Best Picture Oscar, this is no tragedy. But anyone whose familiarity with Rocky begins and ends with Balboa’s Cold War battle with Ivan Drago would be well advised to see the classic that started the whole thing.

“Creed” is rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality; running time: 132 minutes.

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