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Rocky Goes One More Round in 'Creed'

For Sly Stallone, a poignant changing of the guard


Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan star in Ryan Coogler's 'Creed.'

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 12 minutes

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Phylicia Rashad, Sylvester Stallone

Director: Ryan Coogler

En español| Pulsing with the ambition of an underdog and dewy-eyed with reverence for past champions, Creed is the Rocky sequel we never knew we wanted.

For this seventh entry in the series, Rocky's creator, Sylvester Stallone, turned the writing and directing duties over to celebrated indie filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station). This time around, a young boxer named Adonis Creed — the son of Rocky's former nemesis/best friend, Apollo Creed — comes knocking on his door. He wants to be a fighter like his father, and he wants Rocky — long since retired and now managing a restaurant named after his beloved late wife, Adrian — to train him.

That's the plot, and like a palooka charging from his corner, Creed plunges ahead with only a few sidesteps: The young man falls in love, Rocky has a health scare, a big-time boxer picks a fight with the kid. Coogler takes his time with each of these developments, endearing these already likable characters to the viewer even more.

There has always been a strong fantasy element to the Rocky movies. So this is unexpected territory for Coogler, whose hyperrealistic Fruitvale Station told the heartbreaking true story of a young man shot to death by police on a subway platform in Oakland, Calif. The talented star of that film, Michael B. Jordan, had a steely intensity tempered by a soft smile — the perfect blend to play Adonis here.

It's easy to say Sylvester Stallone is Rocky — after all, the rags-to-riches tale of the Italian Stallion echoed the star's own story, emerging from obscurity to make one of the most memorable films of the 1970s. It has even been reported that although Coogler cowrote the screenplay for Creed, Stallone penned Rocky's lines himself. But Stallone is an underappreciated actor, and as Rocky has aged, the star's portrayal of him has grown commensurately more nuanced. "Time beats everybody," he tells Adonis. "It's undefeated." The line is almost breathed, as if Rocky is exhaling a truth that resides deep within. Faced with bad news from a doctor, Stallone underplays the scene beautifully, embodying the tough guy who is at once weighing his own choices and enduring a rush of memories from his wife's final years. Stallone has never played Rocky as a smart guy — he's all heart and gut — and in moments like that he manages to show his audience the workings of a man who would rather have his ears boxed than bare his soul.

Could this truly be the end of Rocky's saga? No telling. If it is, though, Stallone and Coogler have crafted an enormously satisfying send-off. One scene in particular ties the two ends together: Rocky and Adonis climb the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — the same ones Rocky ran up so iconically back in '76. This time, however, the aging boxer gets winded near the top. He stops to catch his breath, and the young man urges him on. Finally they stand together at the summit, each man gazing out over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway; one sees his history, the other his future.

It's fun to muse about the artistic progression (yes, doubters, there is such a thing) of the Rocky films. The 1976 original was no cinematic masterpiece; the movie was as rough around the edges as its hero, whose single-minded pursuit of respectability echoed that of the film's unknown writer and star. Then came a handful of sequels as increasingly spectacular as they were contrived, with Rocky squaring off against foes who seemed less like professional boxers than James Bond baddies.

After a long hiatus, Stallone returned in 2006's Rocky Balboa — a loving meditation on family, loss and regret in which the climactic fight scene was less memorable than the star's convincing scenes of subdued melancholy. It was, in many ways, the best Rocky film of them all.

Until now.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.