Review: Michael B. Jordan stands tall with Rocky’s help in the excellent ‘Creed’

There is a single line of dialogue in “Creed,” late in the film, delivered by Michael B. Jordan, where the entire film comes into focus, and in that moment, the movie absolutely broke me. Whatever I expected from what is, technically speaking, the seventh film in the “Rocky” series, it wasn't this, and I suspect that both Jordan and writer/director Ryan Coogler are going to be very busy once people see what they've done here. It is far better than it needs to be, far better than I expected it to be, and far better than any franchise deserves this far into it.

The screenplay for “Creed,” written by Coogler and Aaron Covington, is lean and smart and emotionally direct, and perhaps the most honest piece of writing in the series since the first film. In some ways, this is an inverted remake, and if there'd been no other films between the two, it would be a perfectly constructed sequel. It's fitting that Sylvester Stallone, who returns here to play the part that first made him an icon, is basically playing the Mickey role this time. Rocky's been retired for a long time, and all of the familiar faces that once surrounded him from film to film have fallen away. Rocky has nothing to do with fighting at this point until he is approached by Adonis Johnson, a young man from Los Angeles. Their first encounter, set in Rocky's place called Adrian's Restaurant, is emotionally charged, especially once Adonis lets Rocky in on his big secret: he is Apollo Creed's illegitimate son. Apollo died before Adonis was born, and his mother passed away only a few years later. Apollo bounced from foster home to foster home before he was located by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who was determined to do right by the boy. While he never took his father's name, he did spend the next fifteen years or so living in his house before moving to Philadelphia to try to build a career under his own name. He wants Rocky to train him, and he leans on the history the two fighters shared as he tries to lure Rocky back into the world of boxing.

What surprised me most about “Creed” was how it both fits into the series perfectly and also seems like a logical next personal step for Coogler as a filmmaker. “Fruitvale Station” was a justifiably angry look at a real incident that has become, if anything, more relevant since it was released two years ago. It is sad how timely the film remains, and it captures a very specific view of what life is like for young black men in American culture right now. “Creed” is concerned with fathers, sons, and what each gets from the relationship, and in particular, it has to do with the way young black men are left to grapple with the legacy of absent fathers so often. Do you take the name of someone who gave you nothing else, and even if they're absent, is it really true that they didn't give you anything? How much of who you are is determined by who your father was, and how do you make peace with someone you never get a chance to meet?

Michael B. Jordan gives an impressive performance here, both emotionally and physically. In the first moment we see him in the film, he's shot from behind, and Coogler shoots him from the middle of the back up. Even before he's begun his training with Rocky, Adonis has built himself into a startling physical presence, and the photography by Maryse Alberti captures every muscle, every line, showcasing exactly how chiseled Jordan is. As expressive as his body is, he plays Adonis as a closed book, afraid to reveal even the slightest hint of who he is to the people around him because once he opens up, he may not be able to shut the emotions back down. He feels very young in some ways, caught at a certain point in his development, and the film offers up a peek at his life in foster care that explains a lot. He may have been rescued at a certain point by Mary Anne (Rashad is excellent in her few scenes), but it doesn't change the damage that was done or the walls that went up when he was sure he was alone in the world. He learned at that point to keep everyone away, holding the world back with his fists, and it is hard for him to open up, even when he wants to.

Rocky may be drawn in at least in part by the backstory and the idea that he's helping Apollo's kid reach his full potential, but what he really responds to is this kid, this closed-off young man who is so desperately, obviously in need of love and support. There's a young woman named Bianca (Tessa Thompson) who also finds her way past Adonis's defenses, and the two of them struggle to keep him from imploding as he starts to work towards the dream that he's barely been willing to express out loud. What's really remarkable about the performance by Stallone is how quiet it is. Even when he wrapped the series up with “Rocky Balboa” after the horror show of “Rocky V,” it still felt like he was working hard to make Rocky iconic. Here, the script is very subtle, and Stallone is more than up to the task. He never overplays the emotional material, and age has made him fascinating. Pauline Kael once described him as “a big, battered Paul McCartney,” and time has only made him even more of an exaggeration. His eyes do all the work now, and there is real sorrow in there. There's one scene in particular that Stallone plays where it feels like, no matter what the actual words are, he's talking about his own relationship with his son Sage, who passed away in 2012, and there's a vulnerability to this version of Rocky that I don't think we've ever seen from Stallone before. I'm not sure I would have used the word “beautiful” to describe him before, but the way he opens himself up here is perhaps the best onscreen work he's ever done. And, yeah… it's beautiful.

On a technical level, “Creed” is impressively crafted, and it serves as a real sign of just how good a storyteller Coogler is. There's an early fight with Adonis that is shot as one long continuous take, and it's a marvel of performance and composition, with Jordan having to sell the illusion that we're watching a real fight no matter where Coogler's camera is. Coogler doesn't just make easy nods to the earlier films to score his emotional points, though. He finds beauty in low places, and he makes sure to let every scene breathe. No one's done better by Philadelphia since John G. Avildsen on the first film, and by the time Coogler wraps things up, his film manages the difficult trick of looking back with earned nostalgia and standing alone as a genuinely strong dramatic piece.

If there's any justice, “Creed” is going to be a monster hit for Warner Bros., and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Academy invite Stallone to the big show this spring. It's an irresistible narrative. After all, the first film won Best Picture and earned Stallone a screenplay nomination, and it was the little movie that came out of nowhere, a perfect example of the subject matter and the movie being reflections of one another. Now, all these years later, this film has totally different DNA, but it takes its lessons from “Rocky” in all the right ways, and it feels like the best case scenario for this kind of return to a franchise. It laid me out, and I wasn't expecting that. “Creed” is, simply put, a winner.

“Creed” opens in theaters everywhere on Thanksgiving.