The Rocky film series is bigger than the movies. It’s an international cultural icon, an emotional touchstone, a pop myth. But some of us forget what a scrappy, indie-feeling effort the original 1976 Rocky was — a shambling, shameless, Oscar-winning throwback to earlier movies about heartbreaking palookas like Marty, On the Waterfront and Somebody Up There Likes Me. Subsequent Rocky movies seemed to lose touch with the gritty street-symphony spirit of the first one, but Creed brings it all back home. Directed and written by self-confessed Rocky worshiper Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), the movie beautifully brings Rocky — and Rocky — up to date while trading on its rich history. And it’s freaking glorious to behold.
The film centers on Adonis Johnson, the conflicted, emotionally closed-off orphan son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s late friend and boxing rival. As passionately played by Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Adonis is a born fighter, scrapping in illegal matches in Mexico and unable to stomach working a big-time office job in Los Angeles. His father’s brilliant history and long shadow haunts him, to the point where we see Adonis shadowboxing right along with his dead father while watching YouTube videos of Apollo battling Rocky. Hungry to carve out his own legacy, Adonis moves out of the flashy home of his mother (Phylicia Rashad) to relocate to Philadelphia. There, he entreats the aged, lonely and self-isolated Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) to train him for a showdown with a cocky light heavyweight champ known as “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).The reassuringly predictable movie finds its own funky, contemporary drive and energy while following the Rocky template in smart, emotionally satisfying ways. It delivers goosebumps, tears, fist-pumping moments and, yes, a big emotional finale. Jordan looks ferociously committed to the role and delivers his best screen moments to date, especially in scenes with his musician girlfriend Bianca (a lovely, spot-on Tessa Thompson), who is battling her own physical challenges — and, most especially, with Stallone. As the battered, ailing Rocky, Stallone delivers his greatest performance since the film that started it all. He’s touching, funny and immensely likable; without ever pushing, he effortlessly conveys grace and gravitas. What a welcome surprise to find that Creed is so good, so satisfying that it gives Rocky — and up-by-the-bootstraps sagas, in general — a good name again.