Essentially taking on the role of Burgess Meredith's old trainer Mickey character from the series' early days, the veteran actor delightfully registers as a paisano from the old neighborhood, a man of the streets who's lived his life, fought his battles and has no more scores to settle. From the points of view of director-co-writer Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, this marks some major mainstreaming after their bracing 2013 breakthrough with "Fruitvale Station"; dramatically, it's the same old "Rocky" formula applied now to the hitherto unknown son of the late Apollo Creed.
It worked before and, commercially, looks to work again.
The first film to use the Rocky character not to have been written by Stallone himself, "Creed" nonetheless follows the patented prescription quite closely, especially when it comes to the unlikely shooting-star career trajectory of the title character. The central conceit is that Rocky's fearsome, Muhammad Ali-like opponent from the first four series entries left behind an illegitimate son who, after a rough, largely parentless childhood, begins pursuing the fight game in seedy venues in Tijuana.
Thinking he might be good enough to follow in his famous father's footsteps, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) has no trouble tracking down Rocky at the Philadelphia Italian restaurant Adrian's, named after the boxer's late wife, and only slightly more difficulty convincing him to guide him in his quest to become a first-rate fighter.
Despite initial resistance, it's a given that Rocky will cave and help the kid out, and Stallone is at his near-best as he charmingly walks the line between weary resignation at the encroachment of old age and the inextinguishable desire to get back in the game again.
The script by Coogler and his former USC grad school classmate Aaron Covington follows a notably formulaic line from here on: Rocky hones and shapes his new charge, who's never been trained in a professional manner, eventually taking him back to his old Front Street Gym; Rocky goes to the cemetery to sit and talk with Adrian, while Adonis meets neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson, "Dear White People," "Selma"), who just happens to be an extremely foxy singer who's doing some local performing at the moment, making possible some club scenes.
An interesting touch has Bianca coping with a degenerative hearing problem that forces her to wear hearing aids, and the screenwriters introduce one other physical affliction that may be unique in the history of Hollywood sports movies and incidentally provides the film's biggest laugh: Right before his first legit fight, Adonis becomes so nervous that he demands that the strings of his boxing gloves be cut so he can go take an emergency crap.
Melodrama and the exigencies of fantasy-fulfillment plotting demand that a high-stakes fight be arranged for Adonis far earlier in his career than would ever be the case in real life. Positioned exactly halfway into the film, his first East Coast bout sees the hopeful getting banged up a bit before getting the feel of things. More interesting is the way it's been shot -- all in one take for the first round, with the steadicam moving around the ring in a manner as agile as the boxers themselves and always catching the key action.
Winning this match-up also lets the cat out of the bag, that this kid is the son of Apollo Creed. The news attracts the attention of arrogant British undefeated light-heavyweight champ "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, who, for reasons of his own, needs a quick fight and sees a big, and presumably easy, payday in taking on the inexperienced American with such a famous lineage. A troubling and perhaps unnecessary medical subplot intrudes at this point to pad out the drama, but the central formula remains unchanged: Can a relatively untested but immensely appealing underdog go toe-to-toe with a beast in the ring?
The Liverpool setting of the climactic bout, Anthony Bellew's attractive toughness as Conlan and Scottish actor Graham McTavish's rough authenticity as the latter's manager provide a welcome new flavor to the film, as well as to the series as a whole. Still, the action of the big fight (an HBO broadcast) feels hyped up, unrealistically contrived and pretty far from convincing, leading, as with most of the "Rocky" films themselves, to an unimaginably frenzied final round in which the result is parsed to highly calculated dramatic effect. The door is certainly left open for more where this came from if audience response warrants it.
Coogler makes the transition from the indie world to big-budget studio filmmaking with a result that's sturdy and smooth. Buffed into ring-ready shape, Jordan acquits himself well both in and out of the ring, even if the innermost aspects of Adonis' insecurities and issues aren't as extensively explored as they might have been. Thompson seriously brightens every scene she's in, while Phylicia Rashad as Apollo's widow mostly looks on supportively from afar.
The score by Ludwig Goransson and a varied array of musical samples gives the score a very different feel from that of the "Rocky" sextet, although an echo of Bill Conti's famous theme floats through at one point. Philly's Rocky Steps also make a key appearance at the end.
Along with several others, including their own sons, original Rocky producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff continued their involvement on this one, although Chartoff died in June. The film is dedicated to him.