By Richard von Busack
Whether snorting with fury in the ring or shyly avoiding a lady’s eyes, Michael B. Jordan is something to see in Creed. It’s the latest Rocky movie—the seventh. It’s also the one with the best director of any of them, Ryan Coogler, previously of Fruitvale Station. Jordan plays Adonis—“Donny”—the illegitimate posthumous son of Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa’s challenger in the 1976 original. Back then, it was a “million to one shot” when Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) had his time in the ring with the mouthy Muhammed Ali surrogate Apollo Creed, played by former Oakland Raider Carl Weathers.
Rocky and Apollo Creed later became the best of pals. And today, Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Jordan) is a buppie who club-fights in Mexico on his weekends. Adonis leaves his suit-and-skyscraper job in L.A. to go to Philadelphia, where he can revisit the city where his celebrated father triumphed. Adonis is also there to tug on the sleeve of Rocky Balboa, because he needs a trainer. Under Rocky’s tutelage, Donny gets good enough to attract the attention of a larger, meaner champ in Liverpool (played by the fearsome pro boxer Tony Bellew).
Philly provides texture, above all else. If we don’t believe in the adventures of Rocky Balboa, we can believe in the walls behind the boxer, the salt-damaged brick, mold and torn wallpaper. Surrounded with an entourage of revving dirt-bikes, the new contender Apollo does his roadwork on funky streets of bodegas, railway viaducts and row houses with plywood-covered windows.
The original Rocky, reportedly written in a couple of days, was a reprise of serious ’50s television programming such as Studio One, blended with something on the order of the mainstream script that Barton Fink aimed for. Its unexpected success muscled out films that told something true about the boxing world—say, John Huston’s Stockton-set Fat City (1972), now available restored on Blu-ray.
Coogler’s skill and style is demonstrated in a real-time, one-take fight, reminding us that throwing punches and ducking is as key to a bout as enduring the blows. The fight scenes recall Mike Tyson’s comment—“Everyone has a plan, until they get hit”—stressing the importance of a clear head despite the pain. No matter how commercial Creed is, it’s well-built, well-acted and inclusive. We’re a hot-tempered nation and we could use a lesson in trust and coolness.