After six movies in the “Rocky” series (including “Rocky Balboa”)—let alone the recent “Grudge Match,” which obviously played off them as well as “Raging Bull,” and even a Broadway musical based on the first picture—one might have thought that we’ve seen enough of Sylvester Stallone’s Philly pugilist, but “Creed” proves that there’s life in the old Italian Stallion yet. All the franchise needed was some new blood (not counting that spilled in the ring), and that’s provided by writer-director Ryan Coogler, whose “Fruitvale Station” was one of the best debut features in years. And he’s brought along the dynamic young star of that film Michael B. Jordan, who redeems his disappointing appearance as the Human Torch in the recent “Fantastic Four” debacle with a vibrant performance here.
Of course, Stallone is also on hand to provide another crowd-pleasing turn as Rocky. This time around, he doesn’t get into the ring again—at least not to face off against an opponent—but instead takes on the role of trainer to a young fighter, in effect assuming the role that Burgess Meredith’s Mickey played in the early movies. Stallone did the same in “Rocky V,” but this time the outcome is better: his charge is Adonis Johnson (Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky’s old opponent-partner Apollo Creed, who’s apparently inherited his father’s ability (presumably it’s all in the genes) and chosen to buck his stepmother’s (Phylicia Rashad) wishes that he take a lucrative financial services job. Instead he travels to Philly and asks Rocky’s help in training for a career in the ring.
Initially Rocky’s reluctant—he hasn’t been to the gym in years, preferring to spend his time at his restaurant, or visiting the graves of Adrian and Paulie. But eventually he relents, of course—there wouldn’t be a movie if he didn’t—and is training young Donnie, as Johnson prefers to be called, according to his old-school playbook, though now the young fighter runs to a hip-hop soundtrack accompanied by cyclists. Donnie also takes time out to begin a romance with his feisty downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer with progressive hearing disorder.
Donnie doesn’t want to play on his parentage, preferring to box under the Johnson name, but his win over the promising son of a gym owner spills the beans, and attracts an offer for a bout against the current light-heavyweight champ, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew), a Brit who’s about to start a stint in prison and needs a quick, but hefty paycheck before he goes into the slammer. Rocky advises against the kid moving too fast, but Donnie decides to go for the gold. The training regimen is ramped up as a result, but it hits a roadblock when Rocky finds himself in a fight of a different sort, in which the tables are turned and Donnie becomes his support. But both are predictably on hand for the championship match in Liverpool, during which—in the tradition of the series—all stops are pulled out as the cocky underdog faces off against a champ who—per the formula—is far too dismissive of his callow opponent. A good deal of blood is spilled in the ensuing battle, which goes back and forth as it goes the distance. What else would you expect?
Coogler has obviously not reinvented the wheel here; he’s brought the “Rocky” template that Stallone fashioned in the earlier films into the next generation, but certainly doesn’t fiddle overmuch with its details. That’s most evident in his treatment of Rocky himself, whom his script not only invests with the same galumphing likability the guy’s always had but also puts into mortal danger to ratchet up one’s sympathy as well. And Stallone, relishing the chance to play the character again, fills out the writing with his familiar aw-shucks shtick. It wouldn’t be a great surprise if he were recognized with an Academy Award (or at least a nomination) for his performance; John Wayne, after all, won an Oscar for one just as redolent of his past glory.
As colorful as Stallone is, however, it’s Jordan who’s the linchpin in the picture’s success. If he wasn’t able to make you root for Donnie, “Creed” wouldn’t work however much sauce Rocky brought to the dish, and Jordan’s mixture of intensity and vulnerability is key. He’s so good that you don’t even mind an ending that seems to invite a sequel, though you might blanch at the thought that it could extend to the same number of installments Stallone’s series did. Nobody else in the cast makes the impression of the two stars, but Thompson is certainly an ingratiating love interest for Donnie, Rashad does the strong-but-concerned mother bit with grace, and Graham McTavish gets a few juicy moments as Conlan’s cunning manager. Bellew is convincingly surly as Conlan, too, with a physique to match.
Credit must also go to cinematographer Maryse Alberti and editors Michael P. Shawver and Claudia Castello, who play as great a role in the visceral excitement of the fight sequences as Coogler and Jordan do. (Creed’s first fight, done in what appears to be a single take, is especially impressive in choreographic terms.) The rest of the craft contributions are first-rate, including Ludwig Goransson’s score, which of course makes room for Bill Conti’s “Rocky” theme at an appropriate point.
So if you doubted that the “Rocky” franchise could use still another episode, “Creed” should make you a believer.