In “Creed” he has made the lovable, punch-drunk ex-boxer Rocky not the star but a supporting player to an up-and-coming fighter. That’s certainly a damn sight better than having to watch 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone climb back into the ring in 2006’s “Rocky Balboa.”
Sappy clichés still abound along with Coogler genuflecting to the mythos of “Rocky” — those stairs in Philadelphia, visits to the graves of Paulie and Adrian, a few blasts of the old Bill Conti music theme.
Yet Coogler has not only injected brio into the old formula, he takes advantage of the fact Stallone is a solid character actor who got waylaid into stardom. He can still play a role instead of smother it in self-aggrandizement.
So “Creed” is, in a throwback to the original film, the story of an impossible long-shot boxer trying to go the distance with a champ; it’s, in fact, the story of the son of Rocky’s opponent in that original film, Apollo Creed.
Of course, no son was ever mentioned before in the series but its creator, Stallone, and longtime producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (who died in June), went along with young Coogler’s theory that Apollo might have had his illegitimate son and he might have become a fighter and yada, yada, yada.
The film marks another reunion, one much more interesting to cineastes, and that belongs to Coogler and the movie’s star, Michael B Jordan. These two collaborated on Coogler’s flawed but impressive debut indie film “Fruitvale Station” in 2013.
That they have reunited on such a different kind of movie, and a studio one at that, demonstrates that these two are up-and-comers from whom everyone can expect exciting things before too long.
Working with writer/comedian and former USC film school classmate Aaron Covington on the screenplay, Coogler spends much of the first act in Los Angeles getting the viewer up to speed about this Creed son, named Adonis Johnson (Jordan).
In an opening flashback, you’re shown him getting rescued as a feisty, troubled boy from foster care and institutional hell by Apollo’s apparently very generous and forgiving widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Fighting is in his DNA, however, so he quits a corporate job to learn how to box, a skill he has been practicing without any coaching in unregulated bouts in Tijuana.
No one will train him in L.A. though, where Mary Anne’s disapproval forbids it. So he hightails it to Philly and tracks down Rocky. Stallone plays his iconic character with just a suggestion of what age and too many head blows can do to gait, speech patterns and body language.
He wears glasses, when he needs to, and maintains a friendly distance from this kid who comes asking too much. Rocky insists he’s out of the game, having enough to do managing his Italian eatery named after his late wife. Eventually and predictably, Adonis coaxes him back into the gym.
Things follow a traditional pattern from here on. First news slips out that this Johnson kid is actually the son of the former heavyweight champ. Then a savvy British promoter seeks to cash in on the Creed name by arranging a quick though highly unlikely bout in Liverpool with a ferocious, bad-boy light heavyweight champ.
En route to England, Johnson gets a love interest (Tessa Thompson, who impressed in “Dear White People” earlier this year) and Rocky a health scare. Both developments scrape the bottom of the barrel of Screenwriting 101 as subplots go. The film uses each melodramatic event as a means of giving the characters activities outside the ring rather than issues worth exploring.
Jordan has bulked up substantially to play a boxer convincingly. Which pays off with his stunt work in the ring with British actor and former pro boxer Anthony Bellew for the match that ends yet another “Rocky” film with a flourish.
Everyone seems to be in a holding pattern here though: Coogler and Jordan clearly have better things ahead of them; Stallone is probably more interested in how to extend the “Expendables” series; and the film makes a nice credit for actors such as Thompson and Bellew.
Still if this is the last “Rocky,” the series goes out on a high note.
Opens: November 25, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: M-G-M, Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, Chartoff Winkler Productions
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Anthony Bellew, Ritchie Coster, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Story by: Ryan Coogler
Producers: Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Kevin King-Templeton, Sylvester Stallone
Executive producer: Nicolas Stern
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Music: Ludwig Goransson
Costume designers: Emma Potter, Antoinette Messam
Editors: Michael P. Shawver, Claudia Castello
PG-13 rating, 122 minutes