Creed scores big

Having earned critical kudos for his 2013 debut Fruitvale Station, filmmaker Ryan Coogler confidently strides into the big-budget studio arena with Creed, which is essentially Rocky 7 but also something more – a genuine and pleasing holiday surprise.

Fruitvale star Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, a tough street orphan who learns he is the illegitimate son of former heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, briefly seen in flashbacks). Unable to resist the lure of the ring, Adonis is determined to somehow follow in his father’s footsteps, and as he seeks to find his identity and forge his own path – a storyline that indeed mirrors the original Rocky (1976) – who better to turn to as a mentor and father figure than the lonely Italian Stallion himself?

The talented Jordan, who survived this summer’s Fantastic Four debacle unscathed, plays Adonis with simple conviction and sincerity, as does Tessa Thompson as Bianca, the singer and romantic interest whose aspirations echo his own ambitions.

Then, of course, there is Sylvester Stallone. Having seemingly bid farewell to his signature character in the entertaining and heartening Rocky Balboa (2006), there’s the risk that he’s going to the well once too often – which, let’s face it, he’s done before – and not just as Rocky.

Under Coogler’s direction, Stallone takes that risk, and it pays enormous dividends. There’s a lot of sentimental baggage here, yet it is deftly handled. It’s a wonderful valedictory turn for one of film’s most beloved characters, a genuine triumph for Sly Stallone.

Adonis gets his “one in a million shot” when tapped to fight British champ Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew), who’s trying to squeeze in a quickie match before a prison stint for gun possession. About the climactic bout, nothing need be said.

Had the film not been connected to the Rocky franchise in any way, it would still be a well-made, well-acted boxing melodrama. It’s a formula picture – as, indeed, Rocky was – but there’s nothing wrong with a formula picture when it’s done well. Creed not only boasts its own identity, and could well kick-start its own franchise (that’s the plan), but it also pays a loving and fitting tribute to Rocky.