Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press
November 22, 2015
Sharing a name with an icon helped Michael B. Jordan immerse himself in "Creed," which is all about taking on legacies
"It was one of those things where I wanted to change my name as a kid," recalls the 28-year old actor, who's actually named for his dad, not the Michael Jordan of hoops legend. "I played sports. I was into basketball, etc, etc. As a kid, when you're teased, it seems like your whole world is coming down around you, even though looking back at it, obviously, it wasn't that serious. But as a kid, at times, it was."
Jordan also felt an extra nudge to compete and be great in his own right, much like the title character of "Creed," a millennial reboot of the "Rocky" franchise that opens Wednesday.
In it, he plays Adonis Johnson, the out-of-wedlock son of Rocky Balboa's old frenemy, Apollo Creed. Born after his father's death, orphaned by his mother and raised by Apollo's widow (Phylicia Rashad) — who finds him angry and alone in the juvenile system — Adonis has yet to come to terms with being the son of a world heavyweight champ.
Drawn inevitably to boxing, he goes to Philadelphia and seeks out his father's old rival, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), and asks the reluctant ex-fighter to become his trainer. Soon enough, Adonis confronts a chance at boxing glory, while Rocky faces the battle of his life in the medical arena.
Reviving the "Rocky" magic seems like a long shot, especially since the Oscar-winning original came out nearly 40 years ago and Stallone, an unknown when he wrote and starred in that first film, put his own coda on the series with 2006's "Rocky Balboa."
But director Ryan Coogler, who teamed with Jordan on 2013's "Fruitvale Station," isn't one to bet against. Coogler was able to convince Stallone to join a project that he'd been mulling since he was in film school at the University of Southern California — and that he first met with the megastar about before he'd even finished making his feature directing debut.
By putting Jordan together with Stallone, Coogler, who also cowrote the "Creed" script, has created a fresh chapter that both honors the gritty, yet sweet style of 1976's "Rocky" and spins the brand forward for a new generation.
The critics are judging it a technical and heartfelt knockout. "Ryan Coogler's rousingly emotional new film is the best installment since the 1976 original," said Entertainment Weekly. The Chicago Tribune, acknowledging the skepticism, put it this way: "Turns out we really did need another 'Rocky' movie."
Jordan credits the honest, restrained, sometimes tender tone of the movie to Coogler, who drew inspiration from watching the franchise with his father as a child.
"I think it's a testament to Ryan and what he brings to everything he does, a certain level of authenticity and realism to it, and some of this feeling that less is more sometimes," says Jordan. ""There's a nice, subtle buildup. It's almost an origin story. You see Adonis becoming a man. He's coming into his own. He's figuring out exactly who he is. And that takes time."
The movie builds a bond between Adonis and Rocky that allows the younger man to find a surrogate father in his mentor. There also is a lovely echo of Rocky's tentative romance with shy pet store clerk Adrian in Adonis's very contemporary relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson of "Selma" and "Dear White People"), his downstairs neighbor and an aspiring singer-songwriter.
"It's kind of interesting to see what it's like dating when two people are so ambitious and have their own goals and dreams that they're trying to achieve, and that ambition draws the two people together and how do you make that work," says Jordan. "It is that give and take, how much you're willing to sacrifice and how much you're willing to work to make that relationship work out. I think that's an important theme that people of our generation can latch onto and connect with."
But make no mistake. For all its thoughtful moments, "Creed" brings full excitement and visual virtuosity to the action in the ring. One of the most dazzling sequences is the single, two-minute take of a match between Adonis and an opponent. It's possibly the most visceral boxing sequence since Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull."
"I remember when I asked (Coogler) how did he see the fights going and he had this really ambitious idea to shoot one fight in one take, in one shot, and I was like,'Man, I'm down for that. Let's do it,' " says Jordan. "It took a month to master the choreography and tons of rehearsal. And at one point, we didn't think we could do it and then, ultimately, we nailed it. The camera can tell a lie very quickly. Anything that looked inauthentic or fake, we were dead against that. We wanted to make sure it was as real as possible."
Jordan trained for roughly a year to get into the fighting shape he displays on the current cover of Men's Fitness. The process involved a strict diet and arduous preparation.
"I kind of knew what I was getting into a little bit, but you never really know until you step in the ring. You've got to go through that process of training and taking those punches and the recovery and soreness that never goes away. You're never completely 100% once you start training and boxing. You're always going to be a little sore. Some days you'll be fresher than others. It's humbling, what these boxers go through, and through their entire lives how much punishment they take. It's definitely an eye-opening experience."
Jordan says he clicked with Stallone right away and admired the veteran actor's willingness to take on what's essentially a secondary role that reveals the aging, vulnerable side of Rocky. "Coming from a place of being so strong for such a long time, and then being able to see yourself play a character that's weaker and more supportive is definitely a transition for him. But he realized it was something he wanted to do and needed to do."
During a recent visit to Philadelphia, Jordan and Stallone appeared in public with Mayor Michael Nutter, who declared Nov. 25 as Creed Day. The young actor laughs at the suggestion that, if many "Creed" sequels follow, an Adonis statue could one day join Philly's famous Rocky statue, which is featured in the movie.
"Oh wow, I'm not thinking that far ahead. No, no, no. Unh-uh," he says, laughing. "Those are huge shoes to fill. I'm thinking of one movie at a time."
Still, his career has been on a trajectory to stardom ever since his early TV roles on HBO's "The Wire" and NBC's "Friday Night Lights." He had a movie hit with 2012's teen-oriented thriller "Chronicle" before earning widespread critical acclaim for "Fruitvale Station," which was based on the real story of a young, unarmed African-American man fatally shot by a transit cop.
Although Jordan hit a professional speed bump this summer with the poorly received and internally troubled superhero ensemble "Fantastic Four," his post-"Creed" projects sound worth anticipating. He plans to reteam with Coogler on "Wrong Answer," a re-creation of the test-cheating scandal in the Atlanta school system.
He also is set to star in "Just Mercy" as civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who launched the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to defending poor people and those wrongly charged or convicted.
Jordan says he's reached a place where he can choose what he wants to do next. "A lot of time you don't have an opportunity (to do that) when you first start out, because you're just grateful for the roles you're getting. 'Wow, I booked that job!!' " And he knows he wants to keep meaningful material as part of the mix. "Being a young black man, a person of color, I wanted to shine a light on stories I wanted to tell."
He's also still interested in a TV project he revealed a couple of years ago, a series that would be set in Detroit and be themed around basketball. Jordan, who has described himself as a fan of Michigan State basketball, developed the idea with a friend and still wants to eventually produce it.
"The timing has to be right for something like that. You can't force anything. It's definitely something I haven't forgotten," says the busy actor. "There's something about Detroit, man, I love that city. There's something about that city that's just an inspiration, the hope, a pride, a town that's been so full of pride."
For Jordan, the future is a journey that seems to have room for everything, from crowd-pleasers like "Creed" to thoughtful, challenging indies.
"I learned from Sly as well, it's called show business. Show and business," he says. "That's something you have to really pay attention to, because you can do a project for you and a project for different reasons that push your career forward. That's what I've been trying to do for the last few years and, hopefully, through my entire career."
Contact Detroit Free Press writer Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.