There's a scene in Creed that may be the greatest promotional ad for Philadelphia ever conceived.
L.A. boxer Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) has come here to train, and has fallen for Philly-raised Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he's standing in her apartment complex working up the nerve to knock on her door. As he does, another dude passes him in the hallway and says, "Good luck, man."
Luminous singer/songwriter Bianca is understandably a mini-celebrity in the building, and the idea that Philadelphia is home to such lovely and creative people is part of the landscape of Creed, and part of the ongoing narrative of the Rocky films, in which the city is consistently one of the most interesting and evolving characters.
So it is with great sadness that we report that in Creed II, Adonis goes home to California, and Bianca goes with him, after saying that she's done everything she can do in Philly.
I tell Thompson — who reconvened here with cast and crew last week to talk about the movie — that the wound left by those words is likely to cut deep.
Her response: Bianca has left Philadelphia, but the city will never leave her.
"In Bianca's mind, it's not about Philly, which she loves. It's more about Bianca, who is an artist, and what people do when they are trying to succeed in that realm," she said. "You can love your home, and still feel that urge — like, it behooves me to make a move and see what I can do elsewhere."
In another arena, so to speak, which places her character on a parallel track with Adonis. That's what the Creed movies aim to do — build a romance between equals, each struggling and competing in their own space.
No matter where Bianca goes, Thompson said, her toughness and spirit were forged in the city. All the work the actress did to find the character occurred in Philadelphia, where she came at the invitation of Creed director Ryan Coogler, who canvassed the city, photographed it, and had given Thompson a portfolio of images to help her find Bianca.
"He showed me a picture of a girl at a train station in North Philadelphia, and she became our North Star. There was something about the look in her eye. She was to me the quintessential Philly girl, the way she was just unapologetically looking straight down the barrel of the camera," Thompson said.
"And I spent about a month here just soaking everything up. And I spent time in hair shops and nail salons and hanging in local bars, getting to know and love the city. So much of what I put on screen was just a reflection and an imitation of best of the people I've come to know living and working here."
If Bianca is being true to herself in Creed II, so is Adonis, who is a Los Angeles guy, and who wants to go home, said star Michael B. Jordan.
"We wanted to be honest about Adonis, too, and if you look at his roots and where's he's from, it's Los Angeles. He came to Philly with a purpose, and sought out Rocky, and while we were mindful of that tradition of making Philadelphia a character in the films, we also wanted to do justice to Adonis by making the story follow his true path as well."
And that's L.A, where he reunites with his mother (Phylicia Rashad) and starts training for his next big fight — with the son (Florian Muneanu) of the man (Dolph Lundgren) who killed his father in the ring, picking up the story from Rocky IV.
Director Steven Caple Jr., who took the reins from Coogler (he retains a story credit and executive producer in II) said Adonis' middle name is literally "Hollywood."
"When I met with Sly and with Mike, we all agreed we need to honor the franchise but distinguish between the films. Creed is a spin-off but Creed is Creed, and Adonis is going to need his own lane. His middle name is Hollywood. How do we get him back there? That was one of our goals in Creed II," said Caple, who paid his respects to Philadelphia by adding a sequence of Bianca taking a limo to Philadelphia International Airport and looking wistfully at her hometown as it whizzes by out the window.
Thompson wanted Bianca to be a little homesick.
"My pitch was, Bianca has this moment where she gets fed up with L.A. Like, if I see one more person with a juice drink I'm going to explode. But it didn't make the cut," she said.
So Creed is Creed, and in Creed II he is home. It's a natural fit for Jordan, born in California, raised in Newark, N.J., but a veteran of the Hollywood scene who been acting professionally since 1999 (his first role was in The Sopranos). He gained traction high-profile roles in The Wire and Friday Nights Lights, and additional credibility when his first movie with Coogler, Fruitvale Station, won widespread acclaim.
Even so, Jordan said Creed, his second collaboration with Coogler, proved something special to both men.
"Obviously, we're drawing on a story that Sly created, but we put a lot of ourselves into Creed. It means something when you have a hand in creating your own origin story, and that story succeeds in the way that Creed did [it made $109 million at the box office domestically]. It's a movie that traveled on an international platform, and it's the first time I got to measure myself in that way," he said.
He and Coogler have since collaborated on Black Panther, which achieved even more impressive success, netting more than $1 billion at the box office around the world (the two are also planning to make a film called Wrong Answer, from a script by Ta-Nahesi Coates).
No one can accurately anticipate that kind of success, of course, but in a way, it was all part of the plan for Jordan and Coogler.
"I think a lot of people starting out have this idea, that we'll always be doing movies together. How realistic is it? You just don't know. We were just two young dudes with something to prove, to ourselves and to other people. He just happened to be the yin to my yang, you know?" he said. "I needed a director who could help me with what I wanted to do, and he needed an actor who could embody the characters he had in his head. He told me straight up, 'I think you're a movie star, let's go show the world.' "
So they made Fruitvale Station together, but Jordan said the seeds of Creed were planted long before then.