If anyone would have ever told me that there was yet another story waiting in the wings within the Rocky Balboa saga I would have laughed out myself into a coma for reasons that are more than obvious. How many times did Rocky have to fight against an unbeatable opponent? All that was left was placing him in the ring against a cyborg, or an alien or worse, a spoof (which actually, did happen: I can’t but think Grudge Match was in some way a not so subtle jab at all the Rocky movies gone bad). No, by the end of 2015, the Rocky Balboa story had come to a close, end of the line, time’s up, shop is closing. EVERYTHING MUST GO.
But . . . of course, there is always a but. It’s a “but” that was probably born in the seeds of Rocky V. Somewhere the spirit of Sage Stallone lives on this film, but now the part of the surrogate son has been taken over by a one-time rival and later friend Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, a young man rescued from a life of possible crime and delinquency who learns of his origins and now watches his father on YouTube clips. When he leaves what seems to be a promising job in an LA firm to come all the way back East to where it all started — Philadelphia — we can sense a hunger in Adonis. He wants this, to get in a ring and fight . . . but he needs the guidance to get there. And that man is none other than Rocky Balboa.
But no, this is not another Rocky gets in the ring and fights movie — far from it, Rocky, now owner of the restaurant that memorializes his wife Adrian’s name (she has died of cancer, off-screen), is far from the passionate man he once was. He’s become a much more sedate person, speaking in quiet tones, and can offer but a meal to this kid who wants his help in training him. It’s only after some serious thought in a touching scene where Rocky visits Adrian’s grave that he relents to become the young Adonis’ mentor while keeping his identity a secret from other boxing gym owners who may want to jump in on the money bandwagon and make a quick buck off of associating with Adonis.
At its heart, Ryan Coogler has reinvented a tired old rags to richers / ignominy to fame story that made Rocky a household winner in 1976 and spun it into powerful life with some truly ferocious direction and acting from both Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone that has to be seen. Jordan, much like the younger Rocky, is a reserved mask of tenacity hiding a bruised soul that needs to forgive himself before he can come into his own in the ring. Stallone now steps into the role made famous by Burgess Meredith, and I will say, his scenes are handled almost delicately — with measured weight, dignity, and the right amount of subtle pathos. Stallone’s Balboa is a tired man hiding a deeper secret, who still can “put ’em up and show a kid how it’s done. It’s his most elegant performance to date after years and years of playing uber-macho characters. Tessa Thompson is also a standout as Bianca, the girl Adonis falls for who has some issues of her own. Someone give this actress a movie already–she’s been oozing presence now for three standout pictures starting with Dear White People and Selma.
Creed is still a Rocky film at heart and isn’t afraid to show its somewhat manipulative streak, but you can forgive it for being so because of the near-perfect direction Ryan Coogler gets out of its story and performers. If you thought seeing Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum was the emotional peak of a man ready to get dirty, you need to see Creed’s biker sequence. It’s as operatic as anything committed to screen.
And shame on the Academy for shutting Creed out of directing, movie, and actor slots. Shame, shame, shame.