Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Directed by: Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”)
Written by: Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) and Aaron Covington (debut)
Nearly 40 years after the character Rocky Balboa made Sylvester Stallone a star and simultaneously launched one of the 1980s’ greatest and most ludicrous film franchises – seriously, we go from a best picture Oscar winner in 1976 to robot servants and boxing to end the Cold War by 1984 – we’re treated to the seventh entry in the “Rocky” series, “Creed,” a late-arriving sequel focused on the never-before-seen son of Rocky’s late nemesis-turned-best friend Apollo Creed and his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps in the ring. On paper, the idea seems less than ideal; we cared about Rocky Balboa, for better or worse, and he already got his send off in the self-titled “Rocky Balboa” back in 2006. Why should we invest in the son of a character who died three movies and 30 years ago? At first glance, sure, it reeks of desperation, but in practice, “Creed” is a knock-out, crowd-pleasing success and one of the best movies of 2015.
As the film begins, Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) is an angry young man in the middle of a brawl in a juvenile detention center after bouncing around various group homes. There he meets Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of his father, who takes him in as her own son. 17 years later, a full-grown Adonis (Michael B. Jordan, ripped to shreds and going by “Donnie”) is boxing for cash in Tijuana in between shifts at his white collar job at an investment firm. When the desire to fight overcomes him, he leaves his mother’s Los Angeles mansion and heads to Philadelphia to find Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, at his best). No one in LA will train Donnie, so he seeks out his father’s best friend, and the champ is initially reluctant to train him as well. But as these things go, Rocky sees both Apollo and himself in Donnie as he takes the kid under his wing, and it’s not long before Donnie falls in love with the girl downstairs (Tessa Thompson) and is offered a once-in-a-lifetime fight, but only if he reclaims his father’s name: Creed.
So how did what is basically “Rocky 7” vault itself into the discussion of the year’s greatest movies? The answer lies with Ryan Coogler, an Oakland-born director with only one other feature under his belt, “Fruitvale Station,” also starring Jordan. Coogler essentially reboots the longshot fighting the odds formula found in the original “Rocky” and turns it slightly on its ear, replacing Stallone’s underdog street tough with Jordan’s pampered-yet-angry quest for identity. Coogler gets a rock-solid performance from Jordan (who should vault to stardom after this role) and a fantastic turn from Stallone as an aged Balboa, alone in the world and battling the one foe he knows is undefeated: time. All through the film, Coogler teases out references to the franchise, and by the time Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” finally comes pumping through the speakers, you’ll be ready to stand up and cheer for Creed, the man and the movie.