Creed does many of the things that the lesser Rocky films, and "inspirational" sports and boxing films in general, have made tired, worn-out cliches. But there's a key difference between Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler's resuscitation of a series that dipped dangerously close to self-parody over the course of the '80s and the legions of imitators and detractors that followed: It earns every punch it throws.
Adonis Johnson is just a boy in a juvenile facility when he's informed by Mary Anne Creed (a returning Phylicia Rashad) that his father has a name — Apollo. Mary Anne adopts Adonis and raises him, but as the film opens, it's clear that Adonis is haunted by the legacy of a man he never knew. He finds some success fighting on small tickets in Tijuana, but no trainer in Los Angeles will take him on under the specter of his father's death. Adonis travels to Philadelphia to find the one man who won't be able to turn him down: Apollo's former rival and best friend, Rocky Balboa.
Rocky has lost everything — his best friend, his wife and, for all intents and purposes, his son. Creed is in many ways a story about two men at opposite ends of their lives lost, looking for something to care about, and it's there, in that story, where Creed finds its footing as more than another sports movie.
On paper it's a corny setup, and with a different director and cast Creed could easily collapse under the weight of nostalgia past its sell-by date. An enormous amount of the credit for Creed's success falls squarely on Michael B. Jordan, who turns in the kind of performance everyone has known was in him since he last worked with Coogler in 2013's Fruitvale Station. Jordan's alternating rage, cockiness and vulnerability as Adonis is magnetic.
We learn this because Creed devotes a refreshing amount of time to basic character development. Coogler spends time showing not only that people tend to like Adonis, but why — he's charming and open, and you get to see that. The chips on his shoulder are apparent as he picks fights he can and can't win. That last part is important. There's genuine tension present, because there are no guarantees that Adonis is going to take all the stakes on the table home.
Jordan's physicality also plays a key role. Adonis is an amateur with an enormous amount of power, raw potential and heart, and Jordan sells it. Relying on his lead's athletic ability, Coogler avoids gymnastic edits, instead lingering on extended takes and shots that capture the brutality of the sport. One fight in particular is a highlight, shot and cut as a single take of the bout from start to finish. It starts out as a cute gimmick, but as it moves from corner to corner and to the battle in the ring, it becomes one of the best narrative breakdowns of boxing I've seen in a film. And in Jordan's corner sits Sylvester Stallone, providing an anchor to the history Creed wears but doesn't depend on.
Stallone's return as Rocky Balboa marks the first genuinely interesting role he's had in years, and in the wake of his franchise work with material like the Expendables movies, his character's emotional and physical vulnerability is a moving surprise.
It shouldn't be, mind. Despite the Rocky films' wild jumps in tone and quality, Stallone managed a complex character evolution over the course of six films, and Creed is the rare sequel that leverages all his work without feeling beholden to it. He's an excellent foil for Jordan's often raw intensity and drive, maintaining a stoicism with enough cracks for genuine emotion to show. And Stallone's quiet delivery still successfully captures the sense of loss that hangs over Rocky as he stares down the opponent that always wins: time.
It's a film with almost uniformly strong performances — Tessa Thompson's on-screen chemistry with Jordan is undeniable, though she takes the love interest role of Bianca and infuses it with her own passion and motivation. Coogler also paints Philadelphia as a character, a move that evokes the original film while also demonstrating a tangible sense of evolution. Though Creed never directly discusses issues of race in a city that's had its share of racial violence and controversy, the writing is on the wall, so to speak, and there's a kind of tension that sits unexpended in the background.
If Creed has any real weakness, it's some uneven pacing and a desire to cram in a few too many narrative threads into its just-over-two-hour running time. Coogler spends so much time on the romance between Adonis and Bianca and the adoptive relationship between Rocky and Adonis that the third-act antagonism of Tony Bellew as "Pretty" Ricky Conlon feels a little cursory, and Bellew can't make up the difference despite his unassailable boxing bona fides as former WBC/ABA champion. But with a movie with as much momentum and heart as Creed, it's a hiccup in an otherwise great film.