In 'Creed,' Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) helps Adonis (Michael B. Jordan),
the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, hone his fighting skills.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: Whether snorting with fury in the ring or shyly avoiding a lady's eyes, Michael B. Jordan is something to see in 'Creed.'

Whether snorting with fury in the ring or shyly avoiding a lady's eyes, Michael B. Jordan is something to see in Creed. It's the seventh and latest Rocky movie. It's also the one with the best director of any of them, Ryan Coogler, previously of Fruitvale Station.

Jordan plays Adonis—"Donny"—the illegitimate posthumous son of Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa's challenger in the 1976 original. Back then, it was a "million-to-one shot" when Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) had his time in the ring with the mouthy Muhammed Ali surrogate Apollo Creed, played by the former Oakland Raider, Carl Weathers. (Nine years ago, in 2006's Rocky Balboa, the fight was "a billion-to-one shot." Inflation has always been essential to this series.)

Today, Donny is a yuppie, who spends his weekends in Mexico, duking it out with other club-fighters. Fed up with the amateur circuit, he soon finds himself on a quest for a trainer—leaving his suit-and-skyscraper job in L.A. for Philadelphia, the city where his celebrated father triumphed and where Rocky Balboa still lives. Under Rocky's tutelage, Donny gets good enough to attract the attention of a larger, meaner champ in Liverpool (played by the fearsome pro boxer Tony Bellew).

As a director, Coogler really knows how to reheat leftovers. The romance between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is un-punched up, so to speak. Bianca is figuratively the girl next door; actually, she lives one flight down from Adonis. The camerawork keeps the budding relationship gentle and tentative. The lovers' conversations are natural, with no weighty info-dumps.

Coogler achieves a fine balance between sensitivity and gritty, city harshness in a date at a cheesesteak shop, lit with green and rose neon. Philly provides texture, above all else. If we don't believe in the adventures of Rocky Balboa, we can believe in the walls behind the boxer, the salt-damaged brick, mold and torn wallpaper. Surrounded with an entourage of revving dirt bikes, the new contender Apollo does his roadwork on funky streets dotted with bodegas, crisscrossed by railway viaducts and pockmarked by row houses with plywood-covered windows.

The original Rocky, reportedly written in a couple days, was a reprise of serious '50s television programming, such as Studio One, blended with something on the order of the mainstream script Barton Fink was trying to write. Its unexpected success muscled out films that told something true about the boxing world—say, John Huston's Stockton-set Fat City (1972), now restored and on Blu-Ray. The Rocky series is the story of a great white hope, with an Italian-American cracking through what had become a black athlete's sport.

Stallone's endurance as a star defies all reason. He's survived the episodes in this series that went loco—as in No. 4, when Rocky and Apollo took turns battling a Soviet cyborg. Stallone underplays, and the weight of age makes him look wise and noble. With his clownish dyed eyebrows and squashed hat, Rocky no longer lingers in South Philly bars—so abject that they look like scenes from a Bela Tarr movie—as he did in Rocky Balboa. In Creed, Bianca recognizes Rocky from 15 yards away. The series can never figure it out: is Rocky Balboa a world-famous pugilist, or a mook who lost all his money? It may not matter. Every susceptible cell responds to watching Stallone work a punching bag, side by side with this film's real star.

Coogler's skill and style is demonstrated in a real-time, one-take fight, reminding us that throwing punches and ducking is as key to a bout as enduring the blows. These scenes recall Mike Tyson's street-smart observation—"everyone has a plan, until they get hit"—stressing the importance of keeping a clear head despite the pain. No matter how commercial Creed is, it's well-built, well-acted and inclusive. We're a hot tempered nation and we could use a lesson in trust and coolness.

PG-13; 133 Mins.

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