★★★★☆When Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) first stepped into the ring, onto the screen, and into the hearts and minds of cinema audiences back in 1976's Rocky, few would have predicted him making it to the seventh round. Even fewer would imagine that he'd still be holding his own (a couple of face-plants onto the canvas aside). But here we stand, almost forty years after its debut, and Ryan Coogler brings the Rocky franchise strutting back through the ropes with renewed vigour with Creed. It's a film that both homages and reboots the original instalment, moving forward with wit, charisma and a energy.
At the centre of the narrative is the one-two punch of Stallone's ageing champion and Michael B. Jordan's green contender, who takes up the gloves with aplomb. He plays Adonis 'Donnie' Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky's great friend and adversary, who Rocky begrudgingly agrees to train. Jordan's is a muscular performance, but as important as rippling pectorals is the quivering tension in his jaw, betraying a potential explosion beneath the veneer of a clever, well-spoken young man. "He's always fighting," his adoptive mother, Apollo's widow Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad), is told by a social worker when she goes to pluck him from a juvenile detention centre. Rocky has, however, got no more energy for the fight. It's a wonderful turn full of weariness and nostalgia from Stallone, and it's a joy to see subtly him embracing his advancing years rather than trying to roll them back in bombastic rubbish like The Expendables.
There is a scene in which Rocky and Donnie attempt to climb a famous set of Philadelphia steps and the difficulty that Rocky has in doing do lends a great pathos to his character. It's one of many such moments in a screenplay by Coogler that references, and reflects many aspects of the older films. In many ways, Creed is The Force Awakens but for the Rocky movies - a seventh instalment that explores the legacy of what has come before while the echoes of the past repeating itself are seen in a narrative with more than a passing resemblance to Rocky. In much the same way as Stallone's very first script, its the characters rather than the narrative beats that enhance the film, with a burgeoning paternal bond accompanied by a grounded and believable romance with Tessa Thompson's Bianca.
The opening hour can feel a little meandering as a result, but fortunately, Coogler is also in supreme command of his craft when it comes to the meat of any Rocky outing - the boxing. Set to a hip-hop soundtrack with sprinkling of familiar motivation, he manages to craft more than one irresistible training montage, which have audiences pumped for the pugilism while grinning at the knowing cliché. When the action actually gets inside the ring, it's portrayed with kinetic immediacy and emphasised with bruising sound design - particularly in a fantastic bout that takes place in one long take, over-the-shoulder of the combatants. The final fight - in which Adonis gets a million to one shot against the reigning champ, 'Pretty' Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) - is more conventional but brilliantly constructed and undeniably thrilling. That's perhaps the best way to describe Creed: a great new entry into the Rocky franchise that submits to the formula and lands almost every punch.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson