The formula that wouldn’t die. 39 years. 7 films. One Best Picture victory. The catapulting of Hulk Hogan and Mr.T to insane levels of popularity. The use of real championship boxers in major roles (Tommy Morrison, Antonio Tarver, Tony Bellew). Sylvester Stallone has actually been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame! It makes sense…he’s been a fantastic ambassador for the sport. And now, close to four decades after getting Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenplay for the original 1976 film (you want perspective? The only others to accomplish that feat, by then, were Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.), Sly’s being mentioned AGAIN as an Academy Award contender for Ryan Cooglar’s “Creed”. Of course, this time Rocky is the trainer, not the fighter, as he essentially transitions into the Burgess Meredith “Mickey” character from our bicentennial year. Want to feel ancient? Stallone is now the same age as Meredith was then. Actually a few months older. The mind boggles.
Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (a quite good Michael B. Jordan) is the son of Rocky Balboa opponent/friend/trainer–and former World Heavyweight Champion–the late Apollo Creed. Apollo was killed in a boxing exhibition before Adonis was even born. Plus, he’s the offspring of an extramarital affair Apollo had. Serving time in an L.A. youth facility, he’s brought to opulence and prosperity by Mary Anne Creed–Apollo’s widow (veteran Phylicia Rashad–well cast), who takes pity on the troubled youth. Years later, Adonis is educated, comfortable, and the holder of a solid job at a securities firm. No matter–he wants to throw it all away to box professionally. He’s been traveling down to Mexico to fight secretly on weekends–and he’s undefeated after 15 bouts. But he wants to pursue a title fight in the United States. So, against Mary Anne’s wishes, Adonis relocates to Philadelphia, to seek the tutelage of Apollo conqueror–former champion Rocky Balboa (Sylve…ah, you know.)
Stallone is excellent here, and he’s already won the National Board of Review Best Supporting Actor trophy. This series just won’t quit. It’s a damn fine, entertaining, poignant movie. It supplies just enough of the expected former franchise touchstones…but doesn’t go into overkill. It’s respectful of the franchise, but doesn’t shy away from rebooting the series direction. It gives Adonis a love interest in the character of Bianca (Tessa Thompson, so wonderful in last year’s “Dear White People”), and their union sparks real chemistry. When this project was announced, many scoffed–this critic included. But when I heard that writer/director Ryan Coogler (2013’s exceptional “Fruitvale Station” was his debut) was taking the reins, I did hold on to hope. Ryan (and co-screenwriter Aaron Covington) delivers. It missteps occasionally. The setup is a bit convoluted. Plus, a lot of this stuff is old hat predictable by now (think: training sequence). It’s overlong (at 133 minutes, the lengthiest in the series). But I dare you not to get pumped up when that old Bill Conti score first arrives. “Creed” delivers. And did I mention that Stallone is superb?