If you’re going to make a boxing movie, why not use the template of one that scored a knockout? That was Ryan Coogler’s concept in pitching a second-generation Rocky movie to Sylvester Stallone, and it works…with Coogler’s Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan as the son of Rocky Balboa’s onetime opponent, Apollo Creed. A troubled kid who’s always fighting, he is taken in by a kindly woman who turns out to be Apollo’s wife (Phylicia Rashad). She raises him well, but when he reaches adulthood he decides that it’s time to follow his destiny and enter the boxing ring, using a pseudonym.
Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington don’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are no shocks or giant surprises in this narrative—except for the way the director presents his hero’s first major bout, as one long, unbroken shot. No one has ever done this before, perhaps because CGI didn’t exist when Robert Rossen filmed Body and Soul and Martin Scorsese made Raging Bull. It’s a hell of sequence.
Jordan shows tremendous commitment to his character—enduring physical demands that not every actor would take on—and works well with his fatherly costar, as well as his striking love interest, played by Tessa Thompson, who scored such a success in Dear White People last year.
As for Stallone, he is clearly in his element and makes the most of every scene, playing the character that made him a household name almost forty years ago and earned him a pair of Oscar nominations, as actor and writer. He doesn’t dodge the concept of aging and, not so incidentally, looks terrific.
Unlike the last Rocky sequels, which seemed to be running out of steam (and ideas) this one seems fresh, despite its formulaic nature, and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Will you hear strains of Bill Conti’s Rocky theme? Will the former champ climb the fabled City Hall steps in Philadelphia? Have no doubt. This movie gives audiences, young and old, exactly what they expect