‘Creed’ shows how to do ‘Rocky’ and fan fiction right

Director: Ryan Coogler
Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Creed,” the seventh film to feature Sylvester Stallone’s pugilist palooka Rocky Balboa, follows a struggling fighter. It has a fairly ludicrous big match between a mighty champ and a nobody. It has a training montage. It has a second-act health scare that could turn out fine (see: Adrian’s protracted coma in “Rocky II”) or not (see: the deaths in “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV”). It has a fight that could be read as a victory even if our hero doesn’t technically win (and doubly so if he does). In other words, it ticks all the boxes of what made the “Rocky” films “Rocky” films.

But there’s no Bill Conti score, no “Eye of the Tiger,” and certainly no Paulie’s robot from “Rocky IV.” It’s the first film with Rocky not written by Stallone himself, but by “Fruitvale Station”’s Ryan Coogler. And Rocky isn’t the hero. That’s Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis, the secret love child of Balboa’s deceased frenemy Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). The film will follow him as he comes to Philadelphia with little to his name — and, speaking of which, not telling anyone he’s the son of the world’s most famous fighter.

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But to say “Creed” doesn’t want to be another “Rocky” would be disingenuous. More accurately Coogler engages in a dialogue between delivering the franchise’s expected goods and lighting off in new territories. “Creed” is part of a new way of reviving beloved franchises. It’s being released a month before “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which will relaunch a series that began the same time “Rocky” did. Both the first “Star Wars” and the first “Rocky” emerged at a time when audiences were looking for more uplift than they were getting from the grim, downer, paranoid dramas that had come to somewhat (though nowhere near totally) dominate Hollywood.

We’ve yet to see how “The Force Awakens” will handle meshing the old with the new, but “Creed,” at least, manages a neat trick: It’s not a slavish recreation nor even a straight-up reboot, but a film that thoughtfully, even movingly, engages with what revisiting this particular beloved franchise in 2015 means. It’s fan fiction but not fan service. When the usual franchise tropes are busted out they’re done in a way that’s filtered through a new voice. (It’s a relief, in a way, when its own training montage is nowhere in the vicinity of awesomeness as the older ones, especially those directed by Stallone.)

“Creed” has as much to do with “Rocky” as it does “Fruitvale Station.” It has little of that film’s politics, even if its casual portrayal of pluralism is itself a political act. But it has the same laidback pace, the same feel for intimacy, and another personable protagonist struggling to contain his rage. Jordan’s Adonis has few of the struggles that plagued his doomed “Fruitvale” hero Oscar Grant, and he’s not even rags-to-riches type. We first see him as a teen fighting in juvie, but he’s adopted by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rachad, underused but electric when she is) and raised in a mansion. But he’s as complex as Oscar. Sometimes we can forget that he’s a guy seeking to beat people up for a living. At one point he goofily fumbles about trying to get his gloves off minutes before a match because he has to use the bathroom, one of many scenes making the most of Jordan’s boyish charisma.

Adonis’ romance with Bianca — a young musician winningly played by “Dear White People”’s ace Tessa Thompson — is given room to breathe and live, even moreso because Bianca is given her own life and career and aspirations outside of Adonis. Coogler’s script is smart about careerists in love, adding in the detail that Bianca is slowly going deaf. Early on she speaks calmly and poignantly about wanting to enjoy an aural craft while she can still hear it.

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Even with a film about finding new life in the old, “Creed” is acutely aware of mortality, whether it’s Bianca being hard of hearing or Rocky’s own crumbling body. There’s a stretch where it looks like Rocky, who becomes Adonis’ coach and “uncle,” could finally pass off on. But “Creed,” which tends to be more level-headed than melodramatic, knows it’s more emotional to simply watch Stallone play with a character he’s lived with for four decades — one who’s learned to live with his insecurities and with the death of the many characters who’ve passed on, which now, apparently, includes Paulie (Burt Young, who’s still around).

Stallone’s first time playing Rocky is one of those deeply lived-in turns whose greatness is easy to take for granted. Here he says almost everything with weary body language, with sad eyes, with a sad smile — all speaking to decades of regret and failure, in addition to triumphs and happiness. He fits right into a film that doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body, that isn’t simply trying to feed off our collective nostalgia, and for a series that is, at best, spotty, if always fascinating. With news that the “Star Wars” series may outlast us all, a film like “Creed” — which has one foot in the past, and one in the future — manages to not only be a worthy successor but remind us that life, not just movie franchises, always moves on.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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