'Creed' stays true to Rocky's real city

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Michael B. Jordan in "Creed"

It would have been so easy to make Creed a mockery of Rocky, his home city, and American urban life in 2015, warts and all.

Imagine the possibilities from the fairy tale peddlers of no-plastic-surgery-is-too-much-plastic-surgery Hollywood: a 21st-century franchise reboot of a lucrative 1970s working-class-hero classic in which Adonis Johnson, fabulously wealthy son of onetime world boxing champ Apollo Creed, flies first class to It City Philly from California. He's chasing rare air in a bloody sport dominated by men who come from nothing and dream of one day having it all.

Adonis doing one-handed push-ups in his $800,000 crib in Center City, his father's onetime foe-turned-friend, Rocky Balboa, observing from a leather sofa, sipping chardonnay. Arresting scenes shot in gentrified 'hoods where $15 martinis and pints of craft beer flow as freely as the protagonist's contrived tears. Sparring sessions inside the Sporting Club sprinkled amid montages of Adonis in a gray hoodie, sprinting past sidewalk restaurants, Penn-educated stay-at-home moms with Maclaren strollers, hipsters in bicycle lanes.

There would be no shots of the recalcitrant poverty or abundant redbrick-rowhouse neighborhoods where underpaid high-rise janitors, Marshall's cashiers, and home health aides live. No signs of a 21st-century city that leads the nation in deep poverty, is 36 percent white, and whose minorities are disproportionately on the economic margins.

But Creed resists delivering a sucker punch. And for that, this movie deserves an Academy Award for authenticity in an age of airbrushing and unrepentant spin.

What's extraordinary about Creed, from the perspective of a longtime Philly reporter who spent years in its neighborhoods, is how unapologetic and true its setting is, even while delivering a Hollywood-smooth narrative of a young man, an old man, and their intersecting searches for meaning and love.

Adonis lands in Philly and parks his gloves and goods in a spare, beaten-around-the-edges apartment on the markedly bleak 800 block of North Broad Street, a total street-cred move by the movie's makers. When he's not in a gym or Rocky's dark-paneled rowhouse, he's under the El tracks at Front and Susquehanna, where Kensington meets North Philly and flirts with Fairhill. Mighty Mick's Gym belongs there.

Adonis samples his first Philly cheesesteak at Max's, near Broad and Erie, a place well-known to North Philly's African American locals but hardly anywhere in the tourist vernacular that lionizes Pat's and Geno's in the onetime Italian Mob Zone of South Philly.

"Unc!" actor Michael B. Jordan shouts to Sylvester Stallone as he approaches Rocky outside the South Philly restaurant the former boxer owns, Adrian's, at 1300 Dickinson St. It's either "Unc," Adonis tells the boxing legend as he unloads groceries from a white van, or "old-ass gangster."

Through all these shots, the city comes to life in a way that is undeniably vibrant and unedited for aspirational tastes.

We find Rocky on a folding chair high atop a hill at historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, reflecting on all he once had and has since lost. His solitude finds company in the faint buzz of the Schuylkill Expressway, visible in the distance.

Since Rocky became the anonymous Italian American urban hero four decades ago, shockingly little has improved for a majority of his home city's citizens.

Developers have filled Center City with high-priced residences while incomes have fallen in most neighborhoods where the majority of Philadelphians live. Public schools are in astonishing distress. And all of this is the numerical norm, not the exception.

And so, in introducing a new hero for a new age - a black man named Adonis - filmmakers chose neighborhoods where such a boxer would push to punch his way out of the low odds of success.

What you see is the city that abounds beyond its bubbled core. People waiting for the 52 bus. A train overpass at Martha Street with the letters E A G L E S spray-painted in white. Adonis seated, dejected, on a sidewalk in front of a locked gym door, approached by a young man on a motorcycle who wonders aloud if he is the Creed.

Director Ryan Coogler's greatest tribute to the Philly of 2015 is not the skyline shots, or showing Adonis running on the city's new floating Schuylkill boardwalk, or the generous cinematographic moments he captures at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It is a scene deep into the film that displays the director's true feat.

Adonis is preparing for a momentous match by running through neighborhoods. As he sprints past lines of unremarkable rowhouses, a voice is heard to shout: "Creed! Let's go!"

Drawn to the boxer as to the Pied Piper, boys and young men on motorbikes and four-wheelers begin to follow.

As Adonis nears the end of his run, where he will find Rocky looking down on the street from a second-story window, he is encircled by the spontaneous posse. They pop wheelies like swans flapping their wings.

It is triumphant, a moment in which a filmmaker declares that Rocky was the hero of our city's past. But Adonis is the face of its today.

Thank you, Creed, for making it - and keeping it - real.

mpanaritis@phillynews.com
215-854-2431

@Panaritism