When we met Rocky Balboa in 1977, he was a rough-edged, punch-drunk Philadelphia club fighter who worked as an enforcer for a local mobster.
Rocky’s only friend was Paulie, a brute and a drunk. He had a thing for Paulie’s sister, Adrian. He worked out at a gym run by an old salt named Mickey. He had a couple of turtles named Cuff and Link, he eventually acquired a dog named Butkus — and of course he was plucked from obscurity to fight Apollo Creed, the greatest boxer the world had ever known.
Cut to present day. Rocky Balboa is almost 70 now. Just about everyone he knew or cared about is gone. He spends his days and nights quietly tending to business at Adrian’s, the cozy Italian restaurant named after his beloved late wife.
Rocky had a good run. A GREAT run. And with the exception of the unfortunate “Rocky V” (Tommy Gunn is the Mister Freeze of “Rocky” villains), we had a fantastic run with one of the most memorable movie characters of our time.
Was there anything left for Rocky to say, to experience?
With “Creed,” the answer is a resounding yes.
Although “Rocky Balboa” had to stretch plausibility to the sky to get Rocky back in the ring in a legit fight (we know from the tragic Drago-Creed fight of “Rocky IV” that “exhibition bouts” can get serious in a hurry), I thought it was a strong, respectful fitting farewell to the champ — and I was worried “Creed” would be more gimmick or spinoff than faithful next chapter.
But thanks to a charismatic, natural performance from star-in-the-making Michael B. Jordan, a script from writer-director Ryan Coogler that expertly navigates paying tribute to the franchise while creating an effective stand-alone film and fine work from Stallone, whose work as Rocky through the years has often been underrated, “Creed” is a terrific addition to the “Rocky” canon.
Through a one-scene flashback and a few establishing scenes, we learn of one Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson), the product of an affair between a mother who didn’t want him — and none other than Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. Adonis bounces around the system until Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), takes the boy in.
Flash forward a decade, and now the 25ish Adonis (Jordan) is working for a Los Angeles financial firm during the week and sneaking down to Tijuana to fight in brutal, black-market matches on the weekends.
Even though Mary Anne has provided Adonis with a top education and he’s a rising star in the corporate world, Adonis is simmering with anger and resentment, and filled with the urge to fight. He sets out for Philadelphia to make a name for himself — and that name WON’T be Creed — as a professional fighter.
Enter Rocky, and you want to cheer the first time Stallone as Balboa slowly out of the shadows at Adrian’s, still wearing that familiar hat, still carrying himself like a prizefighter with every step.
It doesn’t take long for Rocky to figure out who Adonis Johnson really is; it doesn’t take Adonis long to persuade Rocky to train him — at Mickey’s old gym, now refurbished but still an old-school joint where you can practically smell the sweat and the broken dreams before you open the door.
Writer-director Coogler (who directed Jordan in the excellent “Fruitvale Station” in 2013) takes a chance in revisiting so many familiar and beloved touchstones from previous “Rocky” films, from the training sequences to another journey up the stone steps at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the introduction of yet another colorful, seemingly indestructible champion — this time one “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew), an undefeated, undisputed light-heavyweight from Great Britain who is getting one last fight before he’s off to prison. In nearly every instance (save a goofy, choreographed sequence with some Philly street-bike daredevils), Coogler pulls it off in stylish fashion.
While Rocky develops a (sometimes contentious) father-son bond with Adonis (Rocky’s own son is conveniently out of the picture, having taken a job in Vancouver), Adonis strikes up a sweet romance with a smart and beautiful performance artist/musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson).
Stallone is no mere supporting player in “Creed.” While Adonis’ journey is front and center, Rocky is never off-screen for too long. It’s arguably Stallone’s best piece of acting in the role since he introduced Balboa to audiences nearly 40 years ago.
Once again, I find myself saying if this is the last time we see Rocky Balboa, it’s a worthy encore.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Aaron Covington, based on characters created by Sylvester Stallone. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence, language and some sensuality). Opens Tuesday at local theaters.