Admit it. When you heard another “Rocky” movie was coming out — a seventh — you thought, really? How many “Rocky” movies do we need?
Well, it turns out we needed seven. At least.
From its very beginning in 1976, the “Rocky” story has been about proving you belong in the ring — not winning, necessarily, but showing you have the cred to be there in the first place. That’s why Rocky told Adrian: “All I wanna do is go the distance.”
And so “Creed,” directed by the talented Ryan Coogler and starring a fairly irresistible team of Michael B. Jordan and (of course) Sylvester Stallone, shows it belongs in the ring from the first moments. With a deftly crafted blend of smarts and corn — of course there’s corn, people, this is Rocky! — it earns our trust: It’s gonna go right to the edge with the heartstring-tugging, but it won’t go over. And so we can relax. We won’t hate ourselves in the morning. And when the old “Rocky” music starts playing, as it inevitably will at a key moment, we’ll be able to laugh — happily, and not scornfully. The movie’s earned it.
Stallone is now 69, and “Creed” wisely doesn’t attempt to get Rocky Balboa back into the boxing gloves. This film’s about another fighter: young Adonis Johnson, whom we first meet as a child in a LA juvenile detention center. Life has been hard; he’s the secret illegitimate son of boxing great Apollo Creed — Rocky’s former nemesis, of course — who died before Adonis was born. But fate smiles on the boy when Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) takes him in.
Some 17 years later, Adonis (Jordan, exuding charisma and star power at every turn) is living in a mansion with mom and thriving at a finance job. But he can’t shake his passion for boxing. He heads to Philadelphia to find the Italian Stallion. Adonis wants to train with the best.
Rocky, now gray, grizzled and weary, declines at first. “Why,” he wants to know, “would you pick a fighter’s life when you don’t need to?” (Adonis’ mother’s response was even more forceful: “Do you want brain damage?”) But Adonis wins Rocky over.
The clash between Rocky’s old-school ways and Adonis’ modern existence is immediately apparent. When Rocky gives Adonis a written list of training routines, Adonis snaps a shot on his iPhone and waves away the paper, saying it’s safely on “the cloud.” Rocky stares skyward: “The cloud?” Stallone plays it just right; like much here, it could be hokey, but it’s not.
Of course, being a “Rocky” movie, it all comes down to a climactic fight. The opponent is a tough British champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (real-life champion Anthony Bellew). But the British camp poses a condition: Adonis needs to use the Creed name. It’s Adonis’ new musician girlfriend (an appealing Tessa Thompson) who convinces Donnie, as she calls him, that he can. “Take the name,” she says. “It’s yours.”
There’s still the matter of getting in shape. As Adonis and Rocky begin training, an unexpected challenge comes in the form of a serious health scare for the older man.
But back to that fight: If the finale in a “Rocky” movie isn’t gangbusters, you’re sunk, and Coogler (who co-wrote the screenplay) saves his best moves for last, staging a match (kudos also to cinematographer Maryse Alberti) that should have you on the edge of your seat — even though you know, already, that there’s no way Adonis is going to go gently into that good night.
Jordan deserved a good movie after the terrible “Fantastic Four,” and he gets one here; he remains on course to become Hollywood’s Big New Thing. Stallone gives a moving turn as a fading legend with one last big fight in him. (Or will there be more?) Together with director Coogler, you could say this trio knocks it outta the ring.