By Lou Lumenick
November 24, 2015
Nine years after we thought Sylvester Stallone wrapped up his durable franchise on a high note with “Rocky Balboa,” he’s back to pass the torch in style with Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” one of the year’s warmest and most crowd-pleasing surprises.
It seems that before Rocky’s opponent-turned-pal Apollo Creed died in “Rocky 4,” he planted the seed for this spinoff during an extramarital affair. As we see in a prologue set in 1998, the angry Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is adopted by Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) out of a juvenile detention facility after his mother’s death.
Comfortably raised in Los Angeles, Adonis is conflicted about his legacy, moonlighting for prizefights in Mexico from his financial-services job. Finally he quits and heads to Philadelphia and the only man in the world who can help him figure out whether he can live up to the achievements of the father he’s never known.
It comes as no surprise that Rocky has thrown in the gloves after the deaths of Adrian and Paulie, and manages Adrian’s restaurant as quietly as he can, even if he is the most famous celebrity in the city.
At first, he wants no part of coaching Adonis, but something about the young man’s determination touches Rocky. This results in a training montage that demonstrates writer-director Coogler (of the indie sensation “Fruitvale Station”) not only respects but totally gets what made the original underdog classic win the Best Picture Oscar in 1977.
Working with a gifted director and the first “Rocky” script that he does not have a credited hand in, Stallone responds with one of his most careful and nuanced performances in years as he becomes heavily involved in his new protégé’s life.
That life includes a terrific Tessa Thompson as Bianca, a feisty and supportive musician who is losing her hearing and has no time for Adonis’ bouts of self-pity. Or his acting out when Adonis’ illustrious parentage becomes public after his first fight under Rocky’s expert tutelage.
It’s his Apollo connection that gets the unranked Adonis a shot at a title bout — British lightweight champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew, a screen natural) needs a high-profile match to provide for his family before being sent to prison on a gun charge.
The weary Rocky, meanwhile, has his own life-or-death battle to fight outside the ring. Stallone and Jordan (who was in “Fruitvale Station” and the unfortunate “Fantastic Four” reboot) have great chemistry together as their characters urge each other not to give up.
Even as someone who was never a huge fan of the series, I found myself misting up at the final scene in “Creed” that, in less sure hands, would have been unbearably schmaltzy. Hopefully, the new iteration of “Star Wars” (which bowed a year after the “Rocky” saga) will be able to deliver a knockout punch like this for its seventh outing in December.