In 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Sly Stallone’s ageing boxer was ridiculously called out of retirement for one last fight, going toe-to-toe with Antonio Tarver’s Mason “The Line” Dixon.
After such nonsense, surely there could be no life left in this serial punchbag? Astonishingly, there is – and the result has already earned Stallone his first Golden Globe, for best supporting actor. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler reteams with Fruitvale Station star Michael B Jordan to take the series on a left turn which will sensibly push Balboa to the side of the ring while newcomer Adonis Johnson takes centre stage. Johnson (Jordan) is the privileged son of boxing champion Apollo Creed, the father he never knew, but whose widow saved him from juvenile hall. Determined to make a name for himself in the sport that KO’d his father, Adonis tracks down his dad’s rival-turned-ringmate Rocky and demands that he train him. At first Rocky refuses, but Adonis won’t take no for an answer.
What follows may be familiar fare, but Coogler somehow manages to revivify the series, aided by a punchy turn from Jordan and deceptively complex support from Tessa Thompson who did such sterling work in Dear White People. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti (whose credits include The Wrestler) dances nimbly around the fights, capturing one in what looks like a knockout single take, while Tony Bellew’s “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (from “Liverpool, England”) makes a strong fist of being a genuinely dangerous opponent. As for Stallone, he walks these Philly steps again with the proud dignity of a lonely wounded bear – a lovely performance worthy of a few tears.
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