The Rocky franchise bounces off the ropes with a thrilling new entry from Ryan Coogler
Rocky Balboa is one of the 20th century’s most enduring mythical characters. Over six films, this hangdog bruiser from Philly has taken on many guises. He’s epitomised American working-class grit, going the distance against vastly superior opponents and winning; no-one handed him talent or success, he earned it through glorious montages of sweat and skipping. He’s also been the guy on top, the undisputed champion who lost everything – his mentor, his friends, his wife, his health – and still got back in the ring. His steely determination even seemed to bring down the Soviet Union in Rocky IV.
Events from that overblown franchise instalment provide the literal and figurative DNA for sequel/reboot Creed. It was in that fourth movie that Rocky’s great rival and then friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), died in the ring. This entry follows Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the collateral damage from that deadly bout. After spending his early life in care, Donnie’s rescued from juvenile hall by Apollo's widow, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). The pauper is now a prince, living it up in daddy’s mansion with a promising white-collar career, but he’s no happier here than he was scrapping in juvy.
Donnie wants to both follow in his father’s footsteps and step out of his shadow. He begins with back alley bouts in Tijuana under the name Johnson, but to make the big league he needs training. Enter an OAP Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), who reluctantly takes the young boxer under his wing. We can understand his reticence – the last time he trained anyone was in Rocky V, and that ended with him pummeling his protégé in a bare-knuckle brawl.
The coaching, and the filmmaking, goes far better in this installment. This is the first Rocky movie not penned by Stallone, and the new vision, courtesy of Ryan Coogler, who also directs, is inspired. The Fruitvale Station director clearly loves the series, but brings his own sensibility to the material.
Coogler knows exactly when to hit us with a training montage or an emotional speech – don’t worry, this Philly steak is still packed with plenty of cheese – but he also throws some unexpected punches. When we’re all primed for Donnie’s first big fight, the action stalls so he can empty his bowels, and the iconic Rocky score is held off until late in the game, the soft rock replaced with tracks by the likes of Nas and Meek Mill. The fight scenes are also thrilling: one plays out in a silky single take with the camera swaying and bobbing with the jabs and hooks.
Michael B Jordan (Chronicle) plays our new eponymous hero and he’s his typical charismatic self. No longer the scrawny kid from The Wire, he convinces as an athlete (he's in such good shape that real-life boxer Tony Bellew looks a little soft beside him as Liverpudlian antagonist "Pretty" Ricky Conlan), but he's at his best in the casual scenes, shooting the shit with Rocky or charming his improbably beautiful downstairs neighbour, played by Tessa Thompson. And like in the best Rocky pictures, Jordan is deft at blending machismo with vulnerability. At one point we see him braiding his new sweetheart's hair – the kind of sweet gesture that Rocky might have made to his dearly departed Adrian.
Stallone is the real triumph, though. Despite being barely able to move his facial features, he brings a vivid, lumbering grace to every scene. Like in the underrated Cop Land and his last outing as Rocky, Rocky Balboa, he’s acting his age and channeling a lifetime of knocks into the role. When Donnie's jumping rope or doing drills, we see Rocky in the background casually reading the paper and chipping in wisecracks and wisdom, like a heavyweight Yoda. “One step. One punch. One round at a time,” is his mantra. You have to take the same approach with the Rocky franchise – which is sure to continue with Jordan as the focus – take them one film at a time. Some are great. Some are terrible. This one’s a KO.