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Stallone steals the show in Rocky spinoff 'Creed'
Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson in "Creed." - photo by Josh Terry
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 wasnt. 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 franchises roots. Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rockys nemesis-turned-best-friend. After a troubled early childhood, Creeds widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) takes Adonis under her wing. But money and a gift-wrapped career cant 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 (Adrians) 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 whats 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. Theres 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 Rockys courtship with Adrian back in the 70s, it is an echo at best.

Even if Creeds 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 Adoniss 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 cant overcome Creeds flawed story. Adonis may have suffered through a trail of foster homes and the indignity of illegitimacy, but hes 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 hes trying to make it on his own, but he only convinces Rocky to train him because hes Apollos son, and by the time he squares off against Conlan, theres no sense that Adonis is anything but a privileged upstart who hasnt earned his title shot.

Its 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 Balboas famous theme blares out during the third act, Creed finishes more like a Rocky sequel.

As long as youve seen the 76 original, which won the Best Picture Oscar, this is no tragedy. But anyone whose familiarity with Rocky begins and ends with Balboas 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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