"You look real hard, you can see your whole life from up here," says the old man to the kid. So can we, watching in the dark.
Rocky Balboa's 72-stairstep ascent to the museum landing overlooking Philadelphia is different this time. He isn't the young stallion who first made the climb in 1976, and neither are we. The view hasn't changed much, nor the underdog formula Rocky coined way back when.
Ryan Coogler's Creed gives the formula some needed fizz, paying tribute to Sylvester Stallone's creation with a fresh Philly vibe. Coogler wrote and directed the much heavier Fruitvale Station, infusing that film's simmer and charismatic star Michael B. Jordan into Rocky mythology. The multicultural mix fits like a boxing glove.
Jordan plays the title role, although it takes time for Adonis Johnson to embrace the surname of the father he never knew. Dad was Rocky's foe then friend Apollo Creed, killed in the ring in Rocky IV. Mom (Phylicia Rashad) forbids Adonis from boxing, so he fights underground, well enough to quit his job and defy his mother.
Adonis needs a trainer, so he seeks out Rocky, who's settled into running the restaurant named for his late wife, Adrian. Death is part of the Rocky myth, and ghosts are everywhere in Creed; Mickey's gym, Paulie's gravesite, the late Bill Conti's iconic theme music sneaking into Ludwig Goransson's original score. Rocky is a lone survivor, and the kid may have what it takes.
Creed proceeds to hit the same beats as six Rocky movies preceding it, all the way to the Big Fight. But there's a difference here. This is the first Rocky movie Stallone didn't write, enabling Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington to bring new perspective and respect. Rocky has aged into someone Stallone may not have scripted for himself, and likely not as well.
Jordan continues his career ascent with an easy intensity, a natural before the camera and well-trained for the ring. Creed's boxing sequences don't possess the savage beauty of Southpaw's but Maryse Alberti's fluid camera work and the actors' mark-hitting endurance is eye-catching.
Of course, Adonis must have his Adrian, in this case a feistier Philly girl named Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Their scenes together are like ring card showgirls between rounds, pleasant to watch but let's get back to the action.
Creed stays light on its feet for most of its overlong running time, although Adonis could use fiercer opponents, someone in the same bombastic league as his father, or deadly as Ivan Drago. But that would take attention away from Adonis' relationship with Rocky, the reason we're here.
This is easily Stallone's career-best performance, although honestly the bar was never set that high. Living with the character for 40 years gives Stallone extraordinary instinct, a kind of shorthand with the audience, if you're nostalgically inclined. The story takes Rocky to a place we hate to see him, that Stallone underplays to fine effect. A sentimental Academy Award nomination is a distinct possibility.
If that happens, it'll take some of us back to Oscar night, 1977 when a scrappy boxer's underdog story won best picture over the political corruption drama All the President's Men, a prescient satire of Network news and Taxi Driver's loner violence. Each still has meaning today, only one hopeful. The old man is right: You really can see your whole life from up here.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.