At the very beginning of my professional reviewing career, I joked that Sly Stallone needed to finish up this “Rocky” series now — before “Rocky IV” became “Rocky Needs an I.V.”
And damned if that wasn’t prophetic.
It’s amazing how this story, this character and this film franchise has endured. With “Creed,” it has transcended the need for Senior Citizen Stallone to get into the ring. And darned if the formula — the landmarks, the Stations of the Italian Stallion Cross (famous music,museum steps, seedy gyms, training montages) — didn’t get to me a couple of times.
But let’s read to the end and see if I can force myself to endorse this. Because I left the theater very much on the fence.
“Creed” allows Ryan “Fruitvale Station” Cooglar to invert the Rocky Myth for a new generation. It stars Cooglar’s “Fruitvale” muse, Michael B. Jordan. He plays the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s foe-turned-friend over the course of four “Rocky” movies, who died in “Rocky IV” back in 1985.
We meet the kid, apparently 13, in juvenile detention back in 1998. Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) takes the troubled boy home and raises him rich.
But Adonis Johnson — son of Apollo, the most famous alumnus of the Delphi Gym (All Greek to them) — has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He’s a college-educated financial analyst, but also a self-taught brawler who weekends in Mexico, boxing.
When he can’t get any of his dad’s boxing circle to train him, he seeks out Rocky Balboa, widowed restaurateur.
“Why would you pick a fighter’s life?”
Stallone strains, just a little, to find the working class pug deep inside of the Hollywood royalty he’s become. Stilted dialogue doesn’t help. It takes some effort to deliver an excuse for him to reprise Rocky’s most famous lines, “Yo Adrian” and “Yo Paulie.” Rocky visits their graves and reads the newspaper to their headstones.
The kid wants to make his own name for himself, so he goes by Donnie Johnson up to the moment the world realizes he’s Adonis Johnson, son of Creed. And that name, that “Creed blood,” is how he leaps into the position of title contender, fighting a British thug (Tony Bellew) about to go to prison.
A love interest — a singer losing her hearing (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People” and “Selma”) — gets the film’s best line, one that sums up Stallone, Rocky and the movie when she says it to Donnie.
All she wants is to “do what I love as long as I can.”
Stallone gets a couple of sentimental moments with some emotional punch to them. They don’t add up to a lot without our previous investment in the character. Oscar nomination? I don’t see it.
Jordan is a fine actor who looks nothing like Carl Weathers, and even bulked up, is nobody’s idea of a boxer. These ,movies were never really about “the sweet science.” They’re burlesques of it, its practitioners and its milieu.
The movie doesn’t do enough to break the “Rocky” formula, and Cooglar does little to misdirect us away from realizing this. The “grit” of Philly seems digitally removed. Real ESPN and HBO sportscasters, real HBO voice over work by Liev Schrieber are supposed to add authenticity. As are the freeze-frames showing us each hulking opponent, his name and record.
Alas, this “Greatest Hits” is missing my favorite training trope. No, not the chasing chickens that Mickey made Rocky do. Rocky never takes the kid to punch sides of beef.
There’s a justly-celebrated “long take,” which follows Stallone and Jordan from the dressing room, into the ring and through an earlier fight. It’s a showcase scene and is impressive, if not quite dazzling.
But at this stage of this saga, you kind of know where it’s going and which emotional buttons will be punched, the ones I predicted way back in 1984 with my little IV-I.V.” crack. Another two hours and 13 minutes of it, even with decent “Rocky” style fights (roundhouse punch after roundhouse punch) is hardly merited.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson
Credits: Directed by Ryan Coogler, script by Aaron Covington and Ryan Coogler. An MGM-Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:13