Get in the ring

Man, I'm so relieved that this movie isn't about that shitty Christian grunge band.

Man, I'm so relieved that this movie isn't about that shitty Christian grunge band.

Rated 4.0

Nine years ago, Sylvester Stallone seemingly closed the book on the Italian Stallion with Rocky Balboa featuring a nearly 60-year-old Rocky actually getting in the ring again to fight somebody half his age.

This made up for the lunacy of him essentially getting into an illegal street fight with Tommy Gunn the last time we saw him (the abysmal Rocky V) and gave us a more sophisticated, “officiated” violence to close out the Balboa saga. It was a little unrealistic, but Rocky Balboa wound up being a pretty cool and fitting close to the franchise.

A few years ago, it was announced that Ryan Coogler, the promising director of Fruitvale Station, was going to fire up the Rocky machine again, focusing on Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis. There was also speculation that a certain, lovable oaf with gray sweatpants and a droopy lip would be the coach this time around. The whole thing seemed a bit farfetched.

Two years later, Coogler has come through and we have Creed, with Michael B. Jordan of Fruitvale Station as Adonis and the one and only Stallone as Rocky yet again. Coogler’s film manages to be an original work while paying homage to the classic series. It’s also the best Rocky movie since the 1976 original. There’s plenty of life in the old Stallion, after all.

The film opens in the late 1990s as an angry teenager gets into a fight at a juvenile detention center. A kind woman unexpectedly shows up to visit young Adonis. That woman is Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), widow of Apollo Creed. Apollo was a bit randy in his heyday, and had him a son out of wedlock. Adonis is that son, and the charitable Mary Anne wants him to come home and live with her.

Cut to the present, and Adonis has grown up to be a responsible man with a job in finance, but it doesn’t suit him. He moonlights in Mexico with boxing matches, and eventually decides he wants to be a professional fighter. He winds up in Philadelphia, seeking the help of his father’s friend and former heavyweight champion of the world to become a real boxer.

At first, Rocky just isn’t into it. He’d rather visit wife Adrian’s grave, which now rests next to Paulie, who died in between Rocky Balboa and Creed. Of course, Rocky can’t resist the temptation to show his punching knowledge and chicken-chasing trick, so a new boxing combo is off and running.

Jordan just might be the most convincing make-believe boxer in the series, and that includes Stallone. He has a physical resemblance to Carl Weathers, who played Apollo, and looks like he could strike up a pro career in the ring. His performance is across-the-boards excellent. Tessa Thompson proves invaluable to the cast as Bianca, Adonis’ neighbor and love interest, an aspiring musician dealing with progressive hearing loss. The love story is quite sweet.

Given his work in Creed, Stallone could find himself in contention for a best supporting actor Academy Award. He returns the character to the warm, lovable lug he was in the original, a sweetheart of a guy who could kill you with one punch. The movie takes a dramatic twist I won’t give away. I’ll just say it gives Stallone the chance to show the vulnerability of this character, and he’s impressive. It’s far and away the performance of his career.

Coogler directs some of the best fight sequences since Scorsese’s Raging Bull, including a first fight that plays like one take. The final bout between Adonis and overseas Irish villain "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is sports cinema at its very best. Coogler also finds a way to weave that iconic Bill Conti music into the score at perfect moments.

When Rocky IV came out in 1985, I pissed and moaned about how stupid it was. I genuinely hated it. Without Rocky IV, which killed off Apollo at the hands of cartoon character Ivan Drago, we wouldn’t have Creed. I guess I’m retroactively grateful for the existence of Rocky IV.