Back in 1976, our bicentennial year, the nation yearned for a red, white and blue plate special piled high with corn. Something to believe in. Then, up those Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, backed by the Bill Conti theme, that something arrived.
Nobody went to the first "Rocky" for the finesse of the filmmaking. They went for the underdog-rooting, for Rocky and Adrian, for the unexpected sweetness, for the redemption angle, for the reconstituted boxing movie cliches that tasted not new, but new-ish. It was simply time for "Rocky," written and starring Sylvester Stallone, directed by John Avildsen. I saw it three times when it came out. With the rest of the "Rockys," the ones concerned with ego and celebrity and increasingly contrived suffering, once was enough, although No. 6, "Rocky Balboa" in 2006, wasn't bad. That one went easy on the melodrama and sent Stallone's beloved franchise character into the sunset with a semblance of class, albeit an excess of jet-black hair dye.
So, "Creed," a seventh "Rocky" movie? Apollo Creed, Rocky's old nemesis turned best friend, had a son who grows up a scrappy fighter in the LA foster care system? Moves to Philly, connects with Rocky, who's tending the restaurant and still wearing that hat? Rocky trains him for a big fight?
That's how it goes, yes. And damned if "Creed" isn't easily the best "Rocky" movie since "Rocky."
There is, in fact, more filmmaking savvy in co-writer and director Ryan Coogler's prowling opening shot, introducing us to young Adonis Johnson in a 1998 LA prologue, than there was in all of the '76 original. Most of the picture's set in the present day. Michael B. Jordan is Adonis, who keeps his famous deceased father a secret, so he can stake his own claim in the ring.
Rocky likes the kid, but the kid has to learn to fight smart, not fight angry. Well, smart and angry, that's the ticket. Rocky's initially reluctant; he hasn't visited the old boxing gym in years. It's a quiet life. He has a few actual gray hairs now. Mellow, but melancholy. These two lugs, young lug and old lug, have much to learn from each other. The first of three training montages kicks in, as does Adonis' romance with the musician downstairs, Bianca (Tessa Thompson, from "Dear White People" and a huge asset here). Rocky faces a life-threatening health crisis; Adonis faces a vicious Brit (played by ABA heavyweight champ Anthony Bellew) in a Liverpool title match.
"Creed" is two movies. One cleverly and even movingly repositions Stallone's Rocky as a mentor figure who actually seems like a real person again, not a lacquered icon. The other imagines Jordan's Adonis as a separate but intimately related underdog saga in the making. Half the film, written by Coogler and Aaron Covington, revels in cliches, skillfully. The other half sidesteps them and concentrates on scenes and relationships that breathe easily and draw us in the hard way: not by narrative fiat or bald calculation, but through well-written and shrewdly acted encounters.
There's a sweetness in Jordan's screen presence, just as there was (and is, at his best) in Stallone's, and you believe in the flowering relationship between Adonis and the singer-songwriter played by Thompson because "Creed" takes the time. Coogler and Jordan teamed for the excellent fact-based drama "Fruitvale Station" and Coogler's astutely judged camera sense serves him very well with this material. He has an instinct for keeping the actors small in the frame, and letting the surroundings say something about their predicaments, their emotional states.
I fear that a lot of what makes "Creed" better than you'd expect — the character stuff — may work against it at the box office. But you never know; quality sometimes wins out, although it's Stallone's aging Rocky who at one point in "Creed" notes: "Time takes everybody out. Time's undefeated." That's a pretty sticky line, but the way Stallone says it, under his breath, the corn works; it feels like a moment overheard, not a thesis line hammered. With "Creed," Coogler proves he is one of the most skillful young directors around. Turns out we really did need another "Rocky" movie. It just needed to keep Rocky in perspective, and in proportion.