by George Wolf
When your debut feature film was a powerfully moving achievement that heralded limitless filmmaking potential, what’s your next move?
Yes, the film is called Creed, but what director/co-writer Ryan Coogler does to an old cinema warhorse is nearly as surprising as the rookie chops he brought to Fruitvale Station in 2013.
We catch up with Rocky living the life of a local legend in his native Philadelphia. He’s away from the fight game, quietly running a restaurant named for his dear departed Adrian, when an impressive young man shows up and starts asking some very pointed questions.
His name is Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), though he’s intent on proving he is more than just Apollo’s son. He’s been training himself, fighting under the radar and out of the country as “Donny Johnson,” but figures now is the time to look up his father’s old friend and make a move toward the big time.
Coogler again shows sharp instincts, keeping Creed subtly rooted in the tradition of its characters while simultaneously taking the entire franchise in a new direction as vital as it is welcome.
Snippets of familiar music, landmarks and training methods are included but not overdone, reminding you that Rocky was a damn good movie, but never spending enough capital to let you forget that was yesterday.
The cliches are here, too. Adonis must declare that he’s “been fighting my whole life,” there’s the obligatory street fight defending a girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and of course Rocky wants no part of training a young fighter. But miraculously, Coogler is able to make them all feel part of a larger plan, one that is cemented with moments of authentic emotion between the three principal actors.
Jordan, who also broke out with a stupendous performance in Fruitvale Station, finds layers in Adonis, and a drive that reveals without consuming. The kid is a star. Thompson, delivering another winning performance full of easy chemistry, isn’t far behind
And then there’s Stallone, better than he’s been in…well, awhile. Putting aside the lazy crutches (and the Botox), he returns to Rocky Balboa as a man wise enough not to waste this late chance to again be a contender.
The big fight scenes are ridiculously action-packed, sure, but they’re also dynamic, thrilling and as crowd-pleasing as they come. The push over the cliff? Coogler utilizes real anchors from ESPN and HBO more believably than anyone ever has.
Respect where you come from, but build your own legacy.
Creed gets it done.