Maybe it’s no surprise that Sylvester Stallone steals this movie from its presumed star, Michael B. Jordan. It’s his world, after all. We first see Rocky Balboa (Stallone) in his restaurant, Adrian’s. He’s a plainspoken man clearly lost in a mood of resigned retreat from the world, though you quickly realize it goes deeper than that, particularly after a funny, touching scene in which the grise Italian Stallion visits the cemetery where Paulie and Adrian are buried (conveniently) next to each other. He reads the paper to them complaining between ragged breaths that it’s getting harder to walk up there. “Wonder what that means?” he asks. The rest of us don’t. We’re touched despite ourselves.
But the sulky, charismatic Jordan is the movie’s real backbone, playing the illegitimate son of Rocky’s old rival and friend Apollo Creed. Jordan is convincing in pouty scenes and in battle. Even so, Philadelphia is the film’s most interesting character; the locations are real working-class neighborhoods in Kensington and Fishtown — ’hoods with trash-strewn elevated train streets and hipster locales like the fabulous Johnny Brenda’s bar.
What energizes the movie, however, is director Ryan Coogler, who made the great tragic independent film Fruitvale Station with Jordan, and now he turns this shopworn material into something daring and flashy, particularly the first big boxing match of the film. Coogler shoots the bout in one prowling take. It’s the most dazzling and scary use of the gimmick since Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men; it feels like a terrifying ballet. That fight alone makes Creed worth seeing.
While the rest of the film turns sappy and conventional, Coogler is smart enough to know that the violence and schmaltz are the twin points of sports dramas. His Creed is a fine bookend to the original movie. And Rocky Balboa may feel like he’s close to the end in the gritty beginning of this movie, but by the film’s finish, you have to admit that the old fighter might go another whole distance as the new coach.