The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Creed’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, I picked “Creed.”

WARNING THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!

The info:

The Movie: “Creed”

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

Director: Ryan Coogler

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) Adonis Johnson is the son of the famous boxing champion Apollo Creed, who died in a boxing match in Rocky IV (1985). Adonis wasn’t born until after his father’s death and wants to follow his father’s footsteps in boxing. He seeks a mentor who is the former heavyweight boxing champion and former friend of Apollo Creed, the retired Rocky Balboa. Rocky eventually agrees to mentor Adonis. With Rocky’s help they hope to get a title job to face even deadlier opponents than his father. But whether he is a true fighter remains to be seen….

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 94 percent

Our take:

Froemming: Last week, we ventured into the 8-year-old-playing-with-fireworks world of Michael Bay. It left me feeling that we here at the JOE-DOWN needed to return to a franchise we have visited before, to give me some hope for films. We needed to go back to the “Rocky” franchise, because if anything, those (REDACTED) films get me jazzed up on optimism.

So, I picked the 2015 spinoff film, “Creed.”

This is pretty much the direct sequel to “Rocky IV,” and I was hoping for answers to questions I had from that film. Like, what happened to Paulie’s robot? I didn’t get that answer, but I was surprised by the fact that this film could only exist because of the most ridiculous “Rocky” film of all time.

So Brown, were you as troubled by the lack of montages set to “Hearts on Fire” as I was by this film?

Brown: I was not troubled at all. I don’t trust filmmakers nowadays to have something as ridiculous as Paulie’s robot without killing the charm with it. Unless it was Pixar. A Pixar Rocky movie… no, that’s too crazy to work.

There’s two different kinds of Rocky movies: The serious underdog tales of the first and second (and “Rocky Balboa” to a degree) and the over-the-top campiness of 3-5 (and “Rocky Balboa” to a degree). And “Creed,” it takes its cues from the first two “Rocky” movies without overwhelming you with nostalgia like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

So, let me give you some tunes to get you in the right Rocky mood, Froemming.

Froemming: Actually, the first thing I thought after I finished this was how much crap “Force Awakens” got for being too close to the plot of “A New Hope” and this film didn’t get the same for being much like the first two installments. Now, I enjoyed this and “Force Awakens” but to be fair, there was just as many similarities between “Creed” and “Rocky” as there was with the “Star Wars” films.

Brown: I can see the argument there, but I think the difference is “Force Awakens” is much more in-your-face about its nostalgia. Giving long-standing shots of Chewie and Han, using the Millennium Falcon, etc. You didn’t see Apollo Creed’s son do the “Living in America” entrance. “Creed” was just a bit more subtle in the “Hey, remember this?” moments.

Froemming: I agree, and that kind of goes back to the real oddness that this film couldn’t have existed without “Rocky IV.” The tone between the two is so different.

OK, this film follows the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Adonis Johnson, who was born after his father died at the iron fists of Ivan Drago. We first meet him in 1998 at a juvenile detention center getting into fights. He is then adopted by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne Creed.

Brown: This will be a recurring theme in my review of this film because this scene gives no background on my biggest question/complaint with “Creed:” How old is Adonis? You’d think that info like that would be delivered in a scene involving juvenile hall and the whole “He’s a good kid but…” trope they’re trying to set up here. I’ll delve into my age complaint later.

So we see a desperate Donnie get his chance at the good life, living in Apollo’s old home and working what looks like a cushy securities gig. However, Donnie is also fighting anonymously down in Tijuana (the happiest place on Earth, according to Krusty the Clown). The Creed blood is stronger than the suit-and-tie life and he quits to pursue boxing.

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Froemming: The age thing baffled me as well, because he looked like he was 9 or 10 in 1998. “Rocky IV” came out in 1985. If Adonis was born in 1986, he’d be 13… I don’t know, it felt off for me.

But yes, he is boxing on the sly because Mary obviously does not approve of boxing. Because her husband died in the ring. And, to me, that is probably the BEST reasoning this woman should have on not wanting Adonis to follow in his father’s footsteps.

But Adonis wants to be a fighter. He fights along to old YouTube clips of his father’s fights with Rocky (amazing video shots for fights in the ‘70s-’80s by the way).

And where else to become a fighter than in Philadelphia, home of his father’s old friend, Rocky Balboa. Who, might I add, is living the most depressing existence in this film.

Brown: I appreciate that Rocky’s life as a restaurant owner keeps up with the canon, since he opened Adrian’s during “Rocky Balboa.”

So we get Donnie trying to convince Rocky to train him, like how Rocky trained his dad in “Rocky IV.” Umm, Donnie, did you see how that ended up? Even Rocky admitted he should have thrown in the towel. But because his efforts to get a trainer in Los Angeles failed (by the son of Apollo’s trainer), Rocky seems to be Donnie’s only chance to get a trainer while playing the nostalgia card.

Oh, and one of the more jarring things: We finally find out who won the mythical third Rocky/Apollo fight in “Rocky III.” Turns out Apollo won. Now, I hope in the next “Star Wars” we find out directly from Han if he shot first. Oh, wait

Froemming: I, for one, was glad that Rocky admits the fight between Apollo and Drago should have been stopped. But, to loosely quote myself from a previous JOE-DOWN, Rocky WAS THE ONE WHO COULD HAVE STOPPED THAT FIGHT. Donnie, the man who is training you helped kill your dad.

The third fight thing, I’d prefer if we were never told and Rocky carries that information to his grave. But, here we are…

But Rocky doesn’t want to train the kid. He is happy being a miserable loner who reads newspapers at the grave sites of Paulie and Adrian, who are side-by-side for some reason (I never saw “Rocky Balboa” so maybe this was addressed in that. Because they were siblings?).

But something sparks in Rocky! This is Apollo’s child. He gave him some training advice earlier, and knows Donnie is working out at Mighty Mick’s. So, as Donnie is being ignored at the gym, Rocky pops in for the first time in years.

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Brown: I thoroughly enjoy the dynamic between Donnie and Rocky, and especially with Rocky as the modern-day Mick. We grew up with this character and it’s great to see him in the mentorship role. We don’t mention that he was a mentor for Tommy “The Machine” Gun in “Rocky V” because “Rocky V” didn’t happen.

Now this is when the age problem derails things a bit for me. People are real young when they start training for boxing. For example, Mike Tyson began training as a boxer when he was a teenager. In this movie, you see a young girl hitting the heavy bag.

Now, Donnie gets visited in juvenile hall in 1998, 14 years after the Creed/Drago fight (I recall the Rocky/Drago match taking place Christmas day, so let’s assume the match was early 1985). In 2015, Donnie is 30-31 years old. I don’t care if fighting’s in his genes or how he had some fights in Mexico, he’s not taking boxing seriously until he’s 31. That’s too late to get into the fight game, guy. Go back to your white-collar securities job.

Froemming: If Diamond Dallas Page could become a pro-wrestler at 35, anything is possible.

Brown: CM Punk decided to take up mixed martial arts in his late 30s. His first pro fight, lost in two minutes. That’s closer to Adonis Creed’s story.

Froemming: CM Punk sucks though.

Anyway, we also have a love interest here with Donnie’s neighbor, Bianca. She is a musician with a disease that will eventually leave her deaf. I really enjoyed the chemistry between these two characters. Except when they bang on Rocky’s couch. That’s just being terrible houseguests, Donnie and Bianca.

Rocky has set up a local fight for Donnie, and he trains him much like Mick trained Rocky — down to the chicken catch, which I really enjoyed more than I should have.

Brown: There’s a bit of a personal angle with Donnie’s first fight as one of the trainers at Mick’s has been asking Rocky for years to be a corner man for his son, who is one of the top pound-for-pound fighters around. The trainer finds out that Donnie is Creed’s son and wants to market the match that way to make more money. But, Rocky respects Donnie’s wishes, so he goes in as “Hollywood” Donnie Johnson. Second best Hollywood in the fight game besides “Hollywood” Hogan.

Now, all I can do about this fight scene is gush. The entire fight (granted, two rounds, but still) is one tracking shot. I’m sure they used some tricks to have a cut or two, but man, I was loving how well the whole thing was choreographed. From the fight to the corner speeches, doing all that in one shot is amazing. If the movie ended after this, I’d fawn over this movie just for that one shot.

Froemming: Oh man, that was great. I am just going say this now: As a serious film, this is, to me, the second best of the “Rocky” franchise. The story, the fight scenes, the humor, it really gels together to make a enjoyable movie (Adonis’ age being a sore spot here).

Now, with one professional fight under his belt, Donnie is exposed to be the son of Apollo (there was no way this secret would ever stick) and it catches the eye of the manager for “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, who has time for one more fight before he goes to prison. He is also the world light heavyweight champion, so Donnie’s star in the boxing world is soaring, though I really think he is sort of not ready for the throne — 16 fights, one was a pro-fight. But this is a “Rocky” movie, so anything is possible.

Brown: Well, name recognition and marketing is why Rocky got his shot against Apollo Creed in their first fight. Against his manager’s wishes, Apollo wanted to fight Rocky because he thought “The Italian Stallion” would look good on a marquee.

Speaking of callbacks, I loved seeing that Rocky had pet turtles like he did in the first two movies. Way to outlive us all, Cuff and Link.

Now that Donnie has a title fight set up, we see him and Rocky back at it before Rocky collapses during the training. And because all heroes eventually must fall, we find out Rocky has non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And after seeing Adrian pass away due to cancer, Rocky doesn’t think chemotherapy works so he’s willing to just let cancer take him.

Damn. Just… damn.

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Froemming: This part really hit me hard. I grew up with Rocky. Seeing him like this was pretty tough. I mean, I said earlier he is a depressed loner in this film (his friends and wife are dead, his son stays away from him, Rocky is not in a good spot in life here. This was a guy who once owned multiple Ferraris and a robot). And now he is sick, he is content on just withering away to the illness.

And even worse is when he tells Donnie. And as Apollo’s son is trying to convince Rocky that he should do the chemo, Rocky drops a bomb on him saying they are not family.

Rocky is the closest thing this guy ever had to a father. That was another emotional punch into the feels right there.

Brown: Amid the anger and confusion he’s feeling, Donnie says that Rocky killed his real family by not throwing in the towel against Drago (I think Donnie thinks the same way you do, Froemming). The real shame of Apollo not being here is that he’s unable to teach Donnie how to make a stew.

With his emotions getting the better of him, Donnie gets thrown in jail after getting into an ego-fueled fight before Bianca’s show because the headliner called Donnie “Baby Creed.”

So now, Donnie’s got some bridges to mend with both his mentor and his lover, all while getting ready to face the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Yeah… good luck with that, man.

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Froemming: Well, Rocky comes to bail him out. He did kill Donnie’s dad, it is the least Rocky could do. Well, Donnie convinces Rocky to go through the treatment. Donnie explains to Bianca that he punched out the headliner because of Rocky’s illness (not a solid excuse, but it is why he did it). So we come to a training montage (minus “Eye of the Tiger” for some reason), with Adonis training for his fight and helping Rocky with his battle with cancer.

I really like the idea of two battles here: Adonis’ and Rocky’s, and they are helping each other out during the same time. The chemistry between these two characters is what really makes this film work.

Brown: That camaraderie the two have is what makes this movie so fascinating to watch. I’m glad that a sequel has been brought up already.

As far as the training montage… I get why they did it, I like what it stands for with both guys fighting their respective battles. But it was too over the top for me seeing Donnie shadow boxing and doing push-ups in a cramped room while Rocky is getting an IV of chemo drugs. And when we get the customary run through the streets of Philadelphia, a bunch of kids on four-wheelers and dirt bikes start following Donnie all the way to Rocky’s place. It honestly looks like the DMX music video for “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.” In a moment of seriousness, that just made me laugh and took me out of the movie momentarily.

Froemming: Well, we now enter the main event: Adonis Creed v “Pretty” Ricky Conlan. And Conlan gets under Donnie’s skin right away during a press conference, ignoring Rocky’s advice to ignore it. But, this is boxing and that has been a tried and true tactic for boxers forever.

Now it is time to fight. And Donnie gets a present from Mary Anne: The red, white and blue trunks made famous by his father, with “Creed” sewn in the front and “Johnson” sewn on the back.

Now, I haven’t watched boxing forever, but are the intros to boxers really like this? Conlan’s intro to the ring is straight out of the WWE in terms of spectacle.

Brown: Oh, once the cell phones came on, all I thought was that Conlan ripped off the entrance for Bray Wyatt in the WWE. And to help you out, yes, boxing entrances are like this. In fact, this one may be a little tame. For an example, here’s an entrance from Vitali Klischko:

And, as to be expected, Donnie gets pounded in the first round because he is facing a world champion that has trained for this his whole life and not some boxcar hobo who’s fighting for a sandwich.

But, boxing is a 12-round spectacle and we’re just getting started.

Froemming: And in traditional “Rocky” fashion, 90 percent of the punches are haymakers. At least the film kept that constant thread from the other films.

Brown: OK, in the second round when Conlan takes the big headshot from Donnie and you see the blood on his cheek, did you yell “THE RUSSIAN’S CUT! THE RUSSIAN’S CUT!” at your TV like I did?

Froemming: That a trick question? Of course I did.

Now, I jotted this down in my notes during the fight: “Damn Rocky’s a great cornerman here. Where was this during Creed v Drago?” I mean, I guess he has to make up for killing Donnie’s dad all those years ago.

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Brown: It’s not a single tracking shot like the first fight was, but it was still shot very, very well. There comes a point where the lights drop and you just see Donnie and Conlan in the ring. It may not have been the case, but I thought it was a nice homage to the first movie’s big fight. You don’t see empty seats in this fight scene, however (seriously, look at the “Rocky I” fight. It does not hold up).

I have two gripes with the fight, though.

First, when Donnie gets knocked down late in the fight, he stays down a long time to go through flashback land, only to gasp for air and spring back to life instantly. It was like he got the adrenaline shot from “Pulp Fiction.” It felt very weird.

Second, in the final round, Rocky threatens to end the fight because Donnie’s left eye is so swollen, he looks like a Universal Studio monster. If Rocky really was a good corner man, he would have thrown in the towel there. But he never learned his lesson from Apollo. He never learned.

Froemming: Well, to be fair, Donnie wasn’t obviously knocking on heaven’s door, like Apollo was with Drago, at this point in the fight. Still, Rocky should not be in anyone’s corner. He is too punch drunk to know what’s going on.

And, like in the first movie, Donnie goes the distance by fighting all 12 rounds. He loses the fight by split decision, but he wins the night. And, for a pretty green fighter to do such a thing, it is obviously impressive. But unlike Rocky, Donnie will probably not get a rematch with Conlan, because that guy is going to prison.

Brown: But he won respect from Conlan, who tells Donnie that he’ll be the future of the weight class. And more important to Donnie, he made his own name.

I love the first four Rocky movies, and I’m so relieved they went the route of the first two movies where storytelling took precedence over spectacle. Donnie didn’t need the win. He needed to feel like he wasn’t a mistake, and he did it. The only mistake you ever made was the same Apollo did: Having Rocky in your corner.

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Froemming: And as cheesy as it was, I did enjoy watching Donnie and Rocky climbing the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the end. Seeing the old and sick Balboa struggling yet making it up was a nice callback to when we first saw the young, healthy fighter do the very same in the first film.

Brown: The Rocky films have always been about hope, optimism and showing the fight of the underdog (and robots and beach runs on occasion). I’m not ready to see Rocky fade away, so as he looks at downtown Philly and still sees great things ahead, I’m reassured as a viewer.

I think we can wrap this up. Let’s hop into Apollo’s Mustang and go to recommendations.

Would you recommend?

Froemming: Yes, yes a million times yes. As I said earlier, I think this is the second best of the franchise. And as Brown said, it stuck to storytelling rather than spectacle. The chemistry between Jordan and Stallone was also pretty great. Good story, shot well, acted well. I say check it out.

Brown: Hell yes. This is a great movie all on its own, never mind being a great Rocky movie. It didn’t change the playbook a whole lot, but it refreshed a story so many people adore. If they do a sequel, I sincerely hope it is as quality a film as this was.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: