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November 23, 2015

Review: 'Creed' is the Rocky movie Philly needs now

New Stallone installment out Wednesday

The Arts Film
Creed Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures

Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures’, Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinemas’ drama “Creed,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

The "Rocky" franchise is known for many things, including but not limited to "Yo, Adrian!"; its rousing theme, "Gonna Fly Now"; being beloved by Philadelphians just for being set in Philadelphia; and launching Sylvester Stallone to superstardom. 

Things the series is not known for include accurately portraying local running routes and creative plot structures. 

Sure, the first "Rocky" was critically acclaimed for its underdog tale, but each successive installment has worked pretty much the same way: Some boxer probably shouldn't be boxing this other boxer, but a fight is scheduled anyway. The first boxer overcomes the reason he probably shouldn't be boxing with the help of a training montage. The fight happens. Someone wins and someone loses. The end.

Fans of the series, then, will be happy to know that "Creed" very much lives up to the standards set by its predecessors. Not only does the seventh film love Philly just as much as Philly loves Rocky, but it follows the structure of your typical boxing movie. 

Michael B. Jordan, known for roles in "Fruitvale Station" and "The Wire," plays Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky Balboa's former rival-turned-buddy Apollo Creed. He's been living in L.A. with Creed's widow, who took him in as a young boy, spending his days in a cubicle and his nights in the ring. He travels to Philadelphia to coax Rocky out of retirement in hopes his father's friend can be his mentor. 

Of course, at first, Rocky won't do it. Of course, he eventually does. Of course, like in the original "Rocky," Creed is chosen to fight a champion he is unprepared to fight. Of course, there is a training montage. The fight happens. Someone wins and someone loses. The end.

But plot is so not the point of a "Rocky" movie. 

Creed Rocky
(Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures)

In fact, I think viewers going to watch a film about boxing that also stars Stallone should be exempt from all requests for spoiler warnings. The point of a film like "Creed" is to be uplifted by a heartfelt underdog story, just because it's fun -- and "Creed" does that very well. 

It's clear from his debut feature, "Fruitvale Station," that "Creed" writer-director Ryan Coogler can make an entertaining, touching film and bring out a great performance from Jordan. But what's clear in "Creed" is that he has a deep understanding and love of the "Rocky" films, including their unending devotion to Philadelphia -- even though most of them were released before his was born. He's able to pay homage to the Rocky legacy while updating it for 2015.

When Adonis first meets Rocky, he's still running Adrian's, the restaurant he opened in his wife's honor (which is really South Philly's Victor Cafe). When Adonis begins training, he isn't thrown into the freezer with meaty punching bags, but he is found running through the streets of Philadelphia in gray sweats to that indomitable "Rocky" theme. He also trains at Front Street Gym. Rocky visits Adrian's grave to say hello in one of the franchise's most touching running plot points. 

But rather than meeting his lady love at a pet shop, Adonis meets Bianca, played by an enchanting Tessa Thompson, in his apartment building. She's his noisy neighbor who turns out to be a singer and native Philadelphian. (Thompson said she hung around Philly for weeks to prepare for the role.) She teaches Adonis how to use "jawn" properly and how to order a cheesesteak -- at Max's in North Philly -- and he sees her in concert at Johnny Brenda's and the Electric Factory, where she opens up for Philly's own Swizzymack. When Adonis makes his run through Philly, he runs down the Schuylkill Boardwalk, and at the end, he's joined not by cheering schoolchildren, but by a group of teens on dirt bikes. 

The Philly culture that "Creed" explores is that of its young black population, which, considering how the city's demographics have changed since "Rocky" was released in 1976, is rightfully much more representative. Hollywood isn't exactly known for its diversity, so Philly is lucky Coogler could inject the series with some of the real Philadelphia as it looks and feels today. For a series that's so ingrained in local culture, it's a shame it took so long.

The relationship between Rocky, an icon of Boomer generation masculinity, and Adonis, a smiley millennial new to the city, is also a great allegory for today's Philadelphia. The area's sudden influx of young people has stoked tensions between old and new Philadelphians, between history and progress, between rejuvenation and gentrification. Similarly, generation-gap tension arises between Rocky and Adonis at first, and many of the film's laughs come from clashes between their respective old-school and new-school techniques. 

Of course, there are plenty of local Easter eggs hidden in every scene like a love letter to the city. Like with many long-running franchises, just seeing Rocky's character on screen is like visiting an old friend. (And if Stallone has anything to do about it, we'll be seeing him yet again.) Jordan is charming as ever and so easy to root for.

And viewers will root for him. But that doesn't really matter, because the end of a "Rocky" movie isn't about whether the star wins or loses. It's just about getting in the ring.