Sylvester Stallone's Rocky gets an extra round courtesy of punchy reboot Creed
The Rocky franchise gets an unexpected extra round courtesy of Creed, a Ryan Coogler written and directed 'reboot' which repositions Sylvester Stallone's aging 'Italian Stallion' as the trainer of a young boxing hopeful hiding a family secret. David Roy stepped into the ring
Creed (15, 133mins) Drama/Action/Romance.
Starring: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson.
Director: Ryan Coogler
NOW here's a turn-up for the books: just when we thought we'd seen the last of Rocky 'The Italian Stallion' Balboa, the most famous movie boxer of all time is back in a film that's a worthy sequel to the 1976 original and serves as a perfect 21st century 'reboot' for the franchise.
Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone's last attempt to revitalise his ageing champ, was a good movie that suffered from centring on yet another 'comeback' for the fictional pugilist.
Stallone/Rocky were then on the cusp of 60 and, as with many late-career returns in real boxing, it just wasn't that much fun watching an old clubber getting beaten to a pulp while attempting to cling on to his past glories.
Wisely, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler keeps the stuff from Rocky Balboa that worked – Rocky's post-fighting career as the owner of a 'neighbourhood' restaurant, his grief over wife Adrian's death from cancer and his strained relationship with his now estranged son Robert (poignantly represented by a childhood photo of Sly's late son Sage Stallone, who played the character in Rocky V) – and weaves them into a simple story of how Rocky helps a young hopeful to take his first steps as a serious contender.
By making Adonis 'Donnie' Johnson (Michael B Jordan) the illegitimate son of one of Rocky's greatest opponents, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers in the original films), Coogler and his collaborator Aaron Covington bring the creaky franchise full-circle in a character-driven manner while simultaneously revitalising it for God knows how many further sequels to come (Creed II is already greenlit).
Having never known his father, Donnie has been a fighter all his life out of necessity. Yet even years after being rescued from the social services by Creed's kindly widow (a nice turn by Phylicia 'Cosby Show' Rashad) and given a fresh start, Donnie still gravitates towards confrontation.
While not working a nice white-collar job, he's a natural-talent boxer using his mother's name on the Mexican circuit.
After 15 undefeated fights, it's time to quit the office and step-up to the big leagues: and who better to help than the man who knew his father best?
Rocky has always been Stallone's most likeable character, no doubt because good old Rocko's humble underdog persona is the one the action star feels he connects with the most.
The Philadelphian fighter is certainly one of the few roles that allowed Sly to show us he can actually act in a way that leaves 'shoot/fight/kill' comrades like Arnie and Dolph on the ropes.
Here, the ageing action man takes to his father-figure role with relish: this older, more vulnerable version of Rocky now knows the pain of losing family (as does the actor playing him, sadly).
Adrian and his brother-in-law Paulie are dead and the film reveals that Rocky and Robert are estranged. Now, here comes the secret love child of his former opponent/best friend Apollo (killed in the ring by the monstrous Drago in Rocky IV) in need of a mentor.
Dare he open his big old battered heart yet again?
Well of course he does, and just as well: Donnie's not the only one who'll need a support system as events take their course.
Creed is at its most effective when it lets the natural chemistry between Jordan and Stallone do its generation gap thing.
The other big hit is its boxing scenes, which Coogler delivers with a visual flair that shows off his obvious talents while allowing his clear love for the Rocky franchise – which the director used to watch with his father, whose battle with a life-threatening illness feeds into the script – to shine through.
His expertly blocked, Steadicam-shot fight sequences get audiences right up close to the lip-splitting, eye-swelling, rib-cracking action in a pulse-quickening manner that surpasses all of the previous Rocky films in terms of sheer visceral excitement.
The climactic bout – set at Everton FC's Goodison Park, rather bizarrely – between Donnie and scowling Scouse light heavyweight champion 'Pretty' Ricky Conlon (real life boxer Tony Bellew) certainly brings the pain in the exaggerated, more-hits-than-Elvis style pioneered by the original Rocky films, though this time round the sound design is so amped-up that every jab goes off like a gunshot.
Undoubtedly, the real skill of this sequel-cum-relaunch is that Ryan Coogler ensures that we're just as invested in the characters' relationships as who claims the spoils after the final bell.
A funny, touching and exciting watch that gives fresh legs to a much-loved franchise, Creed is a total knock-out.