Hot damn! We have a winner. Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, 29, turbocharges the Rocky franchise in Creed. His focus: Adonis Johnson (a stellar Michael B. Jordan), the bastard son of late champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the father he never knew. The kid needs Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Just enough plot for Jordan to strut his impressive stuff, and for a never-better Stallone to play the aging boxer with more feeling than I’ve seen from him since the original. The first Rocky, in 1976, took the Oscar for Best Picture, beating out All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver, a fact that makes cinema buffs nuts to this day. Point taken. But there’s no denying the crowdpleasing impact of the first Rocky as Stallone the underdog beat the odds by forcing the studios to let him star as the boxer he created. Even though Stallone’s six sequels could never match his first time out, Rocky is movie history.
Creed is the first of the Rocky films that Stallone didn’t write. You’d expect resentment. After all, who is this Coogler kid to tell Stallone how Rocky should behave? Here’s the thing: Coogler says he used to watch the Rocky films with his father, making his version a love letter to the series not a correction. You can feel Coogler’s affection for the material in every frame. Hell, the story Coogler cooked up with co-writer Aaron Covington is a virtual template of the first film. Adonis — Donny to his buds — came up out of foster homes, a chip firmly ensconced on his shoulder. It’s Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), forgiving her husband’s infidelity, who saves the boy from the system and takes him into her lush Los Angeles home. But Donny stays a troublemaker, taking fights in Mexico to work out the rage inside. From the minute Donny decides his dad’s old friend Rocky is the only guy who can train him, he’s off to Philadelphia, where Rocky runs a restaurant named Adrian’s, after his late wife, the script practically writes itself.
The good news is that Coogler puts his own stamp on it. You can feel this fine indie talent stretching his wings in the mainstream. The first fight scene, gorgeously shot by the great Maryse Alberti, looks to be done in one long take and the effect is stunning. Even the romance Donny has with his own Adrian, R&B singer Bianca (a terrific Tessa Thompson), feels sexually frisky and freshly conceived.
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Okay, Donny’s rush from nowhere to taking on the current champ, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan — played by real-life Brit boxer Tony “Bomber” Bellew — is the purest of fantasy. But who cares? Donny has Rocky in his corner. And Stallone grabs us from his first, “how you doin’?” The big fight, held at Liverpool’s Goodison Park, is as pow as you’d expect. The score by Ludwig Goransson has a righteous, right-now feel, only topped when Bill Conti’s iconic theme pops in at just the right moment. And it’s just plain shameless to see Rocky on those Philly steps one more time. But the beating heart of the movie comes when Donny and Rocky mix it up. So irresistible is Stallone’s blend of tough and tender that Oscar should give him points. You heard me. Yo, Academy!