There is a scene midway through “Creed,” the shockingly successful rebirth of the Rocky Balboa saga, that encapsulates what makes the film so thoroughly impressive.
Adonis Johnson is a young boxer whose last name is actually Creed — yes, he’s the son of the late, great Apollo Creed (played so well in the “Rocky” films by Carl Weathers). He is taking the ring for his first fight since beginning his training by his father’s old friend and combatant, Philadelphia legend Rocky Balboa.
Sure, Adonis has some boxing experience, having fought some down and dirty matches in Mexico. But this is next level stuff, against a well-trained, undefeated opponent.
The fight begins, and director Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti bring the camera into the ring, right into the faces of Adonis and his opponent. It’s the start of a stunning sequence, all shot in one unbroken take.
For several pulse-quickening minutes, we are in the ring with the fighters, and the effect is revelatory. This is masterful cinema, and one of the most memorable sequences of onscreen boxing since Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” There has certainly never been anything like this in the six preceding “Rocky” films.
Yes, “Creed” does something pretty remarkable. It is a hugely successful film-franchise passing of the torch, a reboot that honors what came before it while blazing its own trail.
Is that a surprise? Perhaps, since the quality of the Sylvester Stallone films that came before “Creed” plummeted after the 1976, Oscar-winning original. (I adore “Rocky IV” with Dolph Lundgren, but it’s certainly not a good movie. And while 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” was a step in the right direction, it was no classic.)
But “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler brings back the legitimacy and reality the series has mostly lacked since the ’70s. His “Fruitvale” lead, Michael B. Jordan, plays Adonis, the illegitimate son of the boxer who died in the ring.
Taken in as a troubled preteen by Creed’s widow (nicely played by Phylicia Rashad), Adonis has kept his heritage a secret. But when he leaves the comforts of his life in California and treks to Philadelphia to attempt a full-time boxing career, he knows just who to call.
Stallone’s former champ is a still-beloved, still-slow-witted restaurant owner these days, a simple man who misses his late wife Adrian and best friend Paulie. Shocked to meet the son of Apollo, he initially turns down the idea of training Adonis.
Eventually he agrees and soon we are watching another great “Rocky” training montage. We also watch a subtle romantic subplot involving Adonis and his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson, endearingly offbeat).
Soon, of course, the news of Adonis’s heritage leaks, and suddenly he must face a questioning Bianca and “Baby Creed” put-downs. This only helps his career, though, and it leads to a fight against the heavyweight champion of the world, British boxer Tony Bellew as “Pretty” Ricky Conlan.
It’s a standard “Rocky” plot, but Coogler handles it with stirring conviction. “Fruitvale” and “Creed” make him two-for-two, and cement his reputation as one of the world’s most exciting young filmmakers.
Still, what truly sets “Creed” apart is the work of Jordan and Stallone. The former nails the role of a young fighter eager to prove he was not a mistake. And Stallone gives, without question, the best performance of his career.
Playing this version of Balboa, the actor seems rejuvenated. It is clear how much this character means to him, and to the audience.
At 133 minutes, “Creed” is too long, and the lead-in to the final fight feels especially drawn out. Plus, the ending is a bit lacking in originality, especially if you’ve seen the first “Rocky” film.
However, these are minor quibbles for a crowd-pleaser that is a legitimate Oscar contender in a number of categories including actor (Jordan), supporting actor (Stallone), and, especially, cinematography. Yes, Stallone is a likely 2015 Oscar nominee. He might win, too.
Perhaps the highest praise one can give “Creed” is that it’s not just a great “Rocky” film. It’s a great film, period.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
Director: Ryan Coogler
Running time: 133 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality.
The lowdown: The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Johnson, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.