By Matt Pais
It may be tempting to bash human boxing glove and King Expendable Sylvester Stallone.
In “Creed,” the seventh appearance of Rocky Balboa and the series’ first installment not written by Stallone, the veteran actor and his most beloved character prove they’ve got sharp comic timing and plenty of heart left. It’s a surprising, moving performance.
Less surprising is that ultra-confident Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky’s rival-turned-friend who once promised to
crack a boxer as thoroughly as the Liberty Bell, would name his son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan, also very good).
He’s a fighter, too. He’s not looking to piggyback on his name, though –and, no, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (the overrated “Fruitvale Station,” which also starred Jordan) doesn’t make a joke about the band Creed – so he goes by his mother’s last name, Johnson.
Oddly, he also calls himself Donnie. Lucky for him “Creed” isn’t set in Miami.
That’s a dated joke, but not as old as the “Rocky” franchise, now almost 40 years young and dormant since 2006’s unexpectedly decent “Rocky Balboa.” Doesn’t matter.
The dynamic’s just right between Jordan and Stallone as Donnie Johnson (again, a name that does not sound like a destroyer) persuades Rocky, previously retired from all things boxing, to train this ambitious, self-taught fighter who calls him “unc,” short for uncle.
Coogler injects purpose and a great sense of place in Philly, the gym and the ring despite resting on conventions and never generating any doubt about the outcome.
The dialogue often borders on cliché, like when Donnie’s neighbor/romantic interest (Tessa Thompson) says she sings because “It makes me feel alive.” And since there’s a rule that any story about a younger person and an older person must make fun
of the latter’s ignorance toward technology, Donnie (whose father died in the ring in “Rocky IV”) says a picture has gone to the cloud and Rocky looks up at the sky and says, “The cloud? What cloud?” Yeah.
But the fights, which frequently looked fake in the other “Rocky” movies and the recent “Southpaw,” really thump. “Creed” also gets how birthright could inspire both distance and motivation; its view of pride and family continually deepens. Slow and formulaic as it may be, valuable elements collaborate well here.
As Weathers might have said on “Arrested Development”: Toughness, feeling, solid action, good performances: You got yourself a stew, man.