Defying conventional wisdom about diminishing returns, this holiday season will see the release of the seventh installment in an iconic 1970s film franchise that not only lives up to the best of its predecessors, but also respectfully forges its own path. (Hopefully the new “Star Wars” movie is good, too.) With his “Rocky” spinoff, “Creed,” writer-director Ryan Coogler confirms every bit of promise he displayed in his 2013 debut, “Fruitvale Station,” offering a smart, kinetic, exhilaratingly well-crafted piece of mainstream filmmaking, and providing actor Michael B. Jordan with yet another substantial stepping stone on his climb to stardom. Yet the biggest surprise may be Sylvester Stallone: Appearing in the first “Rocky” film that he didn’t also write — and the first in which he takes on a supporting role — the veteran channels all his obvious love for the character into his performance, digging deeper as an actor than he has in years. Despite some heavyweight competition over Thanksgiving weekend, “Creed” should still be a contender at the box office.
A first-scene flashback introduces Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) as an adolescent in a Los Angeles juvenile detention center, busted for fighting in what we assume is a regular occurrence. An orphan who’s been bounced from one institution to another, he receives an unexpected visit from one Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who tells him that he’s the illegitimate son of her late husband, former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.
Flash forward to the present day, and the twentysomething Adonis (Jordan) — Donnie to his friends — is still living with Mary Anne in the white-marble chez Creed, making abortive attempts to work an office job while heading to Tijuana for black-market weekend prize fights. A talented boxer with a weakness for writing checks that his gloves can’t yet cash, he decides to decamp for Philadelphia, against his surrogate mother’s wishes, to train with the man who knew his father’s skills best, professional nemesis-turned-friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone).
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Still tending to his restaurant and making regular visits to his late wife Adrian’s grave, Rocky takes some convincing to get back in the game as a trainer, but he soon relents, and the two start to develop a touch-and-go familial bond. Adonis also meets antagonistic with his downstairs neighbor, a bohemian avant-garde R&B musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson, very brash, very flinty, very Philly), and strikes up a romance.
At first Adonis tries to keep his parentage under wraps, but after an early victory the information leaks, and thanks to the publicity he’s offered an underdog shot at the title: British light-heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew) is set to begin a potentially career-ending prison sentence in six months, and needs an opponent for his swan-song bout in Liverpool’s Goodison Park. Meanwhile, Rocky confronts a serious personal battle of his own, and his trainer-fighter relationship with Adonis is turned on its head in a number of genuinely touching ways.
“Creed” makes no bones about retreading a number of “Rocky’s” story beats, not to mention reaching back into the archives a few too many times for key locations, costume elements and music cues. But it’s the details that elevate this material: Adonis helping braid Bianca’s hair and the two collapsing in a post-bout ice-cream coma; the fact that Bianca sometimes wears a hearing aid (her progressive hearing loss isn’t treated as a symbolic plot point, but simply as a fact of the character’s life); Adonis’ hilarious — and immediately believable — physical manifestation of nervousness in his dressing room. Cut and spry, Jordan looks every inch a fighter, and the physicality of his performance is matched by some well-rounded internal gymnastics: Adonis bears a chip on one shoulder from his group-home past, and one on the other from his treatment as a sort of legacy admission into the boxing world, and Jordan manages to make his character’s fiery temper empathetic rather than alienating.
This being a “Rocky” movie, it goes without saying that the training montages are plentiful, and the climactic battle is a dialed-up, leave-it-all-on-the-canvas epic, featuring virtuosic editing and one bloodily beautiful extreme-slow-motion shot. Yet it’s earlier in the film that Coogler really ups the technical ante. Shot in what appears to be a single take, Adonis’ first major fight is staged with breathtaking precision, the camera circling in and out of the scrum almost close enough to become a participant itself, the two fighters hitting their marks perfectly, and separate sound channels piping in bursts of crowd noise and shouted trainer instructions from all sides, adding up to an immensely immersive experience. As a viewer, one starts the fight admiring the filmmaking technique, and ends it with shredded fingernails.
As wildly uneven as they became, the “Rocky” films have always been unusually attuned to the constancy of personality through extreme life changes. Even after becoming a rich, famous hometown legend (and later, after the loss of most of his family and fortune), Rocky has always been essentially the same person, for better or worse — a lovable lug with a steady undercurrent of self-doubt and loneliness. Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington understand this about the character, and Stallone’s degree of confidence in his director shows through. Without straining for pathos, using his battered body as an asset but never as a prop, the actor finds continually surprising, understated notes of tenderness and regret. For all its flaws, 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” at least offered a dignified sending off for the Italian Stallion, and the risks of reprising the character yet again were surely considerable; Stallone deserves credit for taking a chance on the young director, and his trust has paid off in spades.