Movie review: 'Creed' is a knockout

Movie review: 'Creed' is a knockout
Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in "Creed." (Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros. Pictures)

There's a scene early in "Creed" inside Adrian's, that famous South Philly eatery run by the mumbling restaurateur Rocky Balboa. A young man walks in and eyes the pictures on the wall photographs of the heavyweight champ's legendary bouts, most notably his epic collisions with Apollo Creed.

"Apollo? Yeah, he was great," Rocky says to the stranger, played with a beautiful, burning intensity by Michael B. Jordan. "He was the perfect fighter. Ain't nobody ever better."

"So how'd you beat him?" the guy asks.

"Time beat him. Time takes everybody out. It's undefeated."

"Creed," the brainchild of "Fruitvale Station" director Ryan Coogler, in collaboration with screenwriter Aaron Covington and with the generous and genuinely inspiring participation of one Sylvester Stallone, hands the Rocky mantle and the gloves, and the jump rope, and the training montages to a new underdog determined to box his way to glory. Time is on his side.

Jordan, who played Oscar Grant, the Oakland, Calif., black man shot and killed by a transit cop in "Fruitvale Station's" restaging of the real-life tragedy, has the title role in "Creed."

At that first encounter in Adrian's, though, he introduces himself to Rocky as Adonis Johnson (no "Miami Vice" jokes, please). Thanks to a prologue set in an L.A. juvenile detention facility, and then in the home of Apollo Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad), we already know the kid's true lineage and name.

He's the illegitimate son of the once undisputed heavyweight champion of the world played by Carl Weathers in the original "Rocky" and its first three sequels. Adonis has been fighting since he was a boy back in juvie. He walks out of a promising job with an investment firm. He comes to Philadelphia. And he wants his dad's old friend to train him.

"I don't do that stuff no more," Rocky says, taking his glasses off to give Adonis a serious once-over.

Of course, Rocky does agree to train Adonis, and though he doesn't send his protege to the meat locker to pound on frozen carcasses, he gets him to wake up before the wintry dawn and run all over town: the Ninth Street Market, Front Street in Kensington, along the Schuylkill, the Art Museum and spar relentlessly in the ring.

Cue the Bill Conti theme music, but also cue Meek Mill, the Roots, and John Legend.

Music is integral to "Creed," not just on the soundtrack but in Adonis' new life in Philadelphia: The downstairs neighbor in his apartment building is Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer/songwriter who works on her trippy, soulful tunes at full blast. She invites Adonis to see her show at Johnny Brenda's. Then he gets her to take him for cheesesteaks at Max's.

He never says, "Yo, Bianca," but a romance is born while she works on her career and he on his. And while Rocky starts to feel not so good. He goes to the doctor, and the diagnosis is grim. Time might not be on his side.

"Creed" is corny like the old Rocky films, but riveting like the old Rocky films, too.

The fights the big third act match pits upstart Adonis against a fierce Brit, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (played by power-punching cruiserweight Tony Bellew) are staged and shot with 360-degree impact and artistry. Coogler knows his boxing movies, and Jordan knows his boxing moves. The body blows, the hits to the head, are visceral and convincing.

Stallone took "Rocky" all the way to the bank and to the Academy Awards in 1977, where it beat out "All the President's Men" and "Taxi Driver" for best picture.

It is not inconceivable not at all to imagine "Creed" in the running in the same category when nominations are announced early next year. And for Jordan to be in the running for best actor, and Stallone in the supporting actor lineup.

"Everyone here knows they've seen something special," Rocky says after Adonis' climactic fight.

It's hard to argue with the man.