Rocky still packs a punch making ‘Creed’ a winner

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Sylvester Stallone’s seventh feature about boxer Rocky Balboa is nostalgic, sentimental and heart warming. Wait a minute; this is a boxing movie, right? In the first Rocky movie that Stallone did not write and/or direct, “Creed” is a knockout drama with thoughtful moments of internal struggles and spectacularly choreographed boxing scenes.

Not that it has stopped him before, but Stallone initially rejected the idea of this film, as it might overstay the subject’s welcome. Especially since the last “Rocky” flick effectively wrapped up the series. Approached by young director/writer Ryan Coogler, who just completed the critically acclaimed “Fruitvale Station,” Stallone appreciated a storyline that brings the chronicle full circle. And, he didn’t have to get back in the ring.

In this narrative, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), son of Rocky’s former friend and foe, Apollo Creed, asks Rocky to train him for a title fight. Adonis is a headstrong young man seeking to make it without the Creed surname. His “stepmother” (Felicia Rashad) understands there are reasons why Beverly Hills does not develop many boxers. Realizing she’ll lose this argument, warns him, “I should knock you out myself!”

There’s enough sports action to be a worthy standalone feature. In boxing movies, we typically see dozens of film edits in the boxing action. But here, an entire two rounds is filmed without interruption as a single steadycam shot (took twelve takes). Without breaks, the boxing choreography is actually even better than what we normally see.

Coogler then brilliantly reminds fans of what was so captivating about this series by incorporating relevant nostalgia with a fresh new approach. With Rocky as trainer and mentor of his protege, the 69-year old Stallone is the same age as Burgess Meredith was as Rocky’s trainer in the original 1976 Academy Award winning feature.

Sporting a frumpy fedora and horn-rimmed reading glasses, mild-mannered Rocky manages “Adrian’s Restaurant.” When approached by Adonis, he is skeptical about the young man’s pedigree, ambition and boxing abilities. Adonis insists, “I ain’t got a choice.” Rocky responds, “You always got a choice!” Rocky reluctantly offers limited support; but circumstances rapidly change, and soon there is an opportunity to fight the local champ.

“Rocky” films are contrived, manipulative and corny. Yet, charming characters, skillful direction and a compelling storyline deliver a knockout punch once again. Stallone is thrilled about the longevity of the series, “What’s amazing is that this character and these stories have stayed around without any special effects, without any car chases, without blowing anything up; which is what I usually do, no bullets, no cursing, no sex scenes.”

Ludwig Gorandsson, who also scored “Fruitvale Station,” created a modern soundtrack in the sprit of the iconic Bill Conte theme from prior films. The cast features three-time ABA Heavyweight Champ Tony Bellew as the nemesis. However, Jacob “Stitch” Duran and Padman Ricardo McGill provide a credibly authentic feel as the boxing corner men.

Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler are on their way to super-stardom, but Stallone’s warm, witty and sympathetic portrayal packs a punch, in the tone of Morgan Freeman’s role in “Million Dollar Baby.” It may earn him an Oscar nomination. Playing a man his real age made Sly consider, “It made me definitely realize the clock is ticking.”

“Creed” is 133 minutes and rated PG-13 for violence, language and sensuality. It goes all 12 rounds and may be the best in the series since the original. So much is predictable, but the endings of these films have gone in various directions. So, Coogler filmed two endings so the production team could decide after production wrapped up.

We got so caught up in this film that day that when the Costco cashier asked, “Do you wanna box for your groceries,” we instinctively responded, “No, but we’ll wrestle you for the receipt.” Okay, just had to work that one in. Sure, Rocky is not a very bright guy, but offers words of wisdom as unconventional as his training technics. Explaining fighter longevity, “Time takes everybody out, it’s undefeated.”

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Ron & Leigh Martel