CREED

Creed

CREED  * * * *

Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew and Phylicia Rashad. Screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington. Directed by Ryan Coogler.

This probably sounds like a terrible idea until you see it.

Rocky VII stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson, illegitimate son of Apollo Creed — because *of course* Apollo would have a kid named Adonis — who we first meet duking it out with bullies as a preteen in Juvie Hall, before he’s eventually adopted by the late Champ’s no-nonsense widow (Phylicia Rashad.)

Cut to the present and Donnie, as he calls himself these days, has a fancy banking gig but still sneaks down to Tijuana and remains undefeated in unlicensed, underground fights on weekends. The kid ain’t cut out for a desk job and is a natural born boxer, but no trainers in Los Angeles are willing to risk the wrath of Mrs. Mary Anne Creed, so Donnie eventually heads east to Philadelphia, where he looks up this old palooka his father used to know…

You can probably guess where Creed is going from here, and you probably won’t be wrong. But you can’t predict the enormous artistry and depth of feeling brought to the film by co-writer and director Ryan Coogler, who demonstrates a knack for melding tiny, personal moments with outsized mythology in a manner that calls to mind a certain 1976 sleeper smash.

As much as some of us may enjoy the silly superhero movies into which the franchise devolved, Creed is the first Rocky sequel that feels like the first Rocky. It’s human-scaled, rambling and idiosyncratic, with emotional payoffs larger than life. I spent most of the running time crying my fucking eyes out.

Coogler and Jordan teamed up previously for 2013’s Sundance award winner Fruitvale Station, the harrowing true-life tale of young Oscar Grant, shot in the back for no reason by subway cops one awful New Year’s Eve. If Creed sounds like a bit of a frivolous diversion for these two, that’s because you’re not listening.

This is a movie about legacy, a pop parable regarding generations of young black men who never knew their fathers deciding on their own heroes and their own inheritance, on their own damn terms. An early sequence finds Donnie projecting YouTube footage of Apollo’s second-most famous loss upon the wall while shadowboxing against his old man. Yeah, there’s a lot going on underneath the hood of what is also a spectacular entertainment.

And riding shotgun is what may very well be my favorite performance of this whole damn year. Sylvester Stallone will break your heart as the washed-up Rocky Balboa, still always so sweet, so polite and still so often using words he doesn’t quite understand. “My son lives in a place called Vancouver?” he tells Adonis, as if describing some distant planet far, far away from Philadelphia and not quite sure he got the name right. “I hear from him sometimes. It sounds like he’s happy.”

One of the saddest scenes I’ve maybe ever seen in a movie is Rocky pulling up a folding chair next to Adrian and Paulie’s graves, putting on his coke-bottle glasses and enthusiastically reading the newspaper aloud to their headstones. Rock’s got nothing left, until the son of his greatest foe and best friend shows up one day asking who won that top-secret third fight at the end of Rocky III. How much do you want to bet these two turn out to be really good for each other?

I’m hesitant to describe the rest of Creed because on one hand this is a Rocky movie through and through, finding fascinating inversions and left-hand turns to eventually, in the end, remake the first picture for a new generation, so I don’t want to deny you the deep pleasures I felt watching Coogler continually discovering such smart ways to rewind and replay all the obligatory clichés from unexpected angles.

But the fights are astonishingly choreographed, triumphantly throwing down on that whole bothersome Inarritu-Mendes gang’s digitally-assisted long-take dick-measuring contest that’s been going on for too long. Coogler conducts an entire, thrilling single-shot boxing match that is a massive feat of athleticism without any obvious fakey cheats, underlining Adonis’ vulnerability inside the ring, and so the lack of cuts makes the viewer anxious, wishing for the bell as badly as he is. This is smart craftsmanship that helps us relate to the character, instead of just an obnoxious director jacking off.

Creed is really all about Donnie and Rocky, two guys who have nothing left to lose and don’t really care enough to fight for themselves, until they learn to fight for each other. Coogler’s smart enough to withhold Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” until the absolute last possible moment, and when that iconic trumpet finally sounded I damn near jumped up out of my seat and witnesses will testify I was pounding on the fucking armrests. This is a terrific picture.

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