Creed really has no business being this good. The seventh film in the Rocky franchise should be another cliche-ridden overstayed welcome of a sequel, but something funny happened along the way: Creed got a real director. Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) breathes wonderful new life into the world of Rocky Balboa as well as legend Sylvester Stallone, who is magnificent and Oscar-worthy in what might be his final Rocky installment. But we should know better by now than to count him out.
Stallone makes his first Creed appearance as Rocky in his hometown Philly restaurant, Adrian's. A young man stares knowingly at the weathered fight photos framed on the walls. "This one's from the 10th round of the second fight." He surprises the ex-champ with his fight acumen, but a much bigger shock is in store. Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) says he's the illegitimate son of Rocky's greatest rival and late best friend, Apollo Creed. And he wants Rocky to train him.
Johnson, who grew up in group homes and was "always fighting," was eventually taken in by Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashād). She raised him in a mansion but Adonis, nicknamed "Donnie," never felt comfortable in luxury and he refuses to take a great office job in finance, disappointing his adopted mother. With Apollo's spirit hovering over him (quite literally in one great scene where Donnie shadowboxes his dad), he fights underground in Tijuana, building an amateur record and doing what he loves—what his father loved.
Determined to become the best, Donnie hunts Rocky down in Philadelphia. The beloved ex-champion is old and gray now, but still humble and full of the joie de vivre that made us all love him in 1976. He refuses the hungry young man, like Mickey once did to Rock, but Donnie keeps coming around looking for pointers. Rocky sees himself in the kid and, in no time, he's got him chasing chickens and doing one-handed push ups. But soon, the public discovers what Rocky and Donnie have been trying to hide: Apollo Creed's son is a fighter and everyone wants a piece. The leak leads to a PR-driven championship fight offer from troubled current champ Ricky Conlan (real fighter Tony Bellew) and the film ends with a raucous, worthy showdown we haven't seen in a Rocky film since Balboa chopped Ivan Drago down in 1985.
Creed, despite its familiar formula, is a fantastic sports movie and proof the sweet science is still the most cinematic athletic subject. But it also maintains a sharp dramatic edge. The script, by Coogler and Aaron Covington, even finds room for romance. Donnie's neighbor in Philly is a talented singer, Bianca (Tess Thompson), and he's instantly smitten. She becomes his inspiration outside the ring—Adrian with braids and a million dollar voice.
Inside the ring, "Baby Creed" looks to Balboa, who teaches him how to fight and how to think like a fighter. Stallone is tough leather in the role and his boxing smarts are honed. Freed from his behind-the-lens responsibilities (Stallone wrote and/or directed all the other Rocky movies), he gives his best performance in years—since Cop Land in 1997. His hair might be gray, but the 69-year-old actor shows he can still inspire people.
Not to be outdone, Jordan is a bubbling mass of energy as Adonis. Carrying 24 extra pounds of muscle, he lives up to his namesake while recalling Carl Weathers' Apollo in the first four films—a physical specimen if there ever was one. "You look like him." Bianca teases, but she's telling the truth. Rocky refers to Apollo as a perfect fighter (he also deliciously reveals who won that third fight) and he sees the old man in the kid, both in body and mind. Why does Rocky give him a chance? Still guilty over never throwing the towel in Rocky IV, Balboa seeks redemption and Creed taps into the character's history expertly, without coming out and saying it.
The throwbacks to the Rocky movies of yore are countless, but never feel cheap or forced. Creed is a film made by a director with a vision. Coogler is exactly the kind of filmmaker Creed needed. He ushers the franchise into modernity with style. The camera gets in the ring with the pugilists; steadicams circle the action and Coogler uses long, unbroken takes so you feel the action in your kitchen. Outside, the camera is handheld. Cinematographer Maryse Albert's close-ups are perfectly executed, studying the lines in Rocky's face and the passion in Donnie's. The lensing also adds needed reality, grounding the film while killing any sense of melodrama. It's the most realistic Rocky movie since the first one in 1976 and worthy of that film's heart. Like we did 40 years ago, we may be talking Rocky Balboa on Oscar night.