'Creed' updates the Rocky franchise, explores masculinity

"Creed" updates and adjusts the Rocky franchise, explores masculinity

The surprisingly captivating and sophisticated Rocky rewrite "Creed" tells the story of the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the Muhammad Ali-esque character from the Rocky franchise. The film opens with a young Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) staring out of a juvenile detention center's window. Guards put him into solitary confinement for brutally beating a boy almost twice his size. Soon after, the woman who will come to save his life, Apollo Creed's wife Mary Anne, played gracefully by Phylicia Rashad, informs him that despite what he thinks, he does "have a father." Adonis is the offspring of an extra-marital affair and though he is not her son, Mary Anne takes him in. Young Adonis' life changes forever. He is raised in the lap of luxury but there is always something haunting him: the legacy of his father, Apollo Creed.

Seventeen years later, Adonis quits his well-paid job as a banker and becomes a full-time boxer. Just before this scene we watch him win a match in Tijuana.

Adonis changes his whole life to pursue his dream of being a boxer, which includes moving to Philly to train with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) himself and getting the father he never had. Through Adonis' decision to chase his father's legacy, Rocky receives a second chance at developing an intimate relationship, a recurring failure throughout the later Rocky films. Simple and sweet, this film teems with masculine love in a way that is unexpectedly soothing. "Creed" also adjusts some of the problems of the Rocky franchise, toning down the white paranoia about dominant black athleticism found in "Rocky 3" while also stopping short of being a movie in which an aged white man finds himself again by helping a young black man. And it hits all of the emotional beats of the Rocky franchise on its own terms, updating the white working-class world of Philadelphia to fit Creed's contemporary come-up. You hear it explicitly on a soundtrack which features Philadelphia rap staples such as Meek Mill and the Roots instead of, say, the cheesy rock of Survivor, and you witness it intensely with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), Adonis' love interest—in effect, his Adrian.

Bianca chases her dream of being a singer as intensely as Adonis chases his dream of being a boxer and so she is not simply the supportive woman character found in Adrian but is separately vested in her career and come-up. This sense of equality adds intimacy and urgency to their romance. Meanwhile, Michael B. Jordan reaffirms his place as perpetual bae. As Adonis, he's like a pit bull puppy: sweet because he loves you but always ready to pop off if need be. And Adonis' ability to love isn't strictly confined to his romantic relationships. The relationship between Adonis and Rocky is endearing, earnest, and dynamic. Like a young grandson with his grandfather, Adonis gives Rocky new life, something to dream about and want again while Rocky gives Adonis guidance, insight, and discipline. Stallone plays Rocky with a settled confidence and Jordan plays Adonis with a translucence that makes you wonder how much of this is even acting.

"Creed" is the product of director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan, who previously gave us "Fruitvale Station," a devastating and complex portrait of Oscar Grant, the young black man who was killed by a BART police officer. In a sense, it's a continuation of that movie's nuanced approach to race and institutions and that palpable sense of humanity, yet it is still a Rocky movie. It's cognizant of the heavy legacy of the franchise it's toying with and wants to do it justice (and it does), but it is confident enough to update and change it for 2015.

"Creed" is now playing.

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