Posted by Joel Copling on November 25, 2015

The idea of a throwback in movies is that the audience is allowed the chance to catch up with characters from their youth or childhood. It's an idea steeped in nostalgia, and the treatment can sometimes be pretty shameless and hollow. "Creed" represents the best that nostalgia has to offer on a thematic level, because the screenplay by Aaron Covington and director Ryan Coogler tackles issues of legacy and legend. This is an exceptionally thoughtful rumination on the family we are born into and, later, lose, filtered through the type of earnest American exceptionalism that the "Rocky" series, even at its worst, was always known to evince. Over there is the series' seventh iteration of its primary protagonist, and here is a new character with emotional and familial ties to this world.

And "this world" was always pretty much the real one, even though the characters were fictional and the previous installments (with the exception of 2006's respectful sequel/reboot) became more melodramatic and overblown. Here they occupy an entirely different political, social, and economic landscape than the one we'd known. Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), as a young, black man from Los Angeles who moves to the less privileged neighborhoods of Philadelphia to follow a risky dream to fight in the ring, knows this all too well. He is, after all, the son of Apollo Creed, the world-class boxing champion who died in the ring in 1988's "Rocky IV." Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) fears the influence his father's legacy will have on Donnie.

Donnie immediately seeks out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), his father's nemesis-turned-friendly-rival and a former underdog champion himself, to train to fight. An opportunity reveals itself when he fights and defeats the undefeated son of Rocky's old pal Pete (Ritchie Coster) and news breaks of Donnie's parentage: "Pretty Ricky" Conlan (Tony Bellew) is about to go to prison for life, and his trainer Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish) wants one solid final fight for his client. It's a battle of pride as much as one of brawn, with one contender fighting to remove himself from his father's legacy (marred slightly according to sports pundits who mock the birth of a child out of infidelity) and the other fighting to retain a bit of dignity (a goal achieved by a surprisingly touching final few words between the two men).

This is not a film built on false drama. These are all good but flawed individuals, and Coogler and Covington wholly understand. There is no forced conflict conjured between the contenders beyond their initial meeting and the "villain's" self-admitted anger issues that will land him in jail. A romance that develops between Donnie and his downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson, moving and expressive) is threatened only by his entirely understandable inability to come clean about his true surname. She is also a musician slowly going deaf and trying to keep her passion for music alive at all desperate cost. Their bond is a sweet one. Rocky faces failing health with a fateful doctor's visit, but fortunately the condition he has is kept in the background--a constant reminder that mortality extends to the most inspirational among us.

The sickness is also an excuse for the film to shift the dynamic between Donnie and Rocky to one of mutual benefit, rather than merely a mentor and his protege. "If I fight, you fight," Donnie mandates when Rocky refuses to seek treatment, and suddenly they are helping each other fight the inscrutable and indefinable. Literal fights, complete with training montages and replete with brutal blows to the face and body in the ring, are exhilarating to witness, such as Donnie's first in the ring (captured by Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti in a single armrest-clenching take) and the final seven-bout showdown with Ricky (paced by editors Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver to match chin for chin).

The real story, though, is the performances at the center. Jordan is phenomenal as the film's heart, a newcomer to a business that is both out of his league and in his blood. He has the physicality (with his body like a smooth, bulky stone to which Coogler's camera makes love on many an occasion) and just the right sadness behind his eyes. Stallone has perhaps never been better than here, in his comfort zone as a legend of his field getting up there in age and reticent about returning to a world in which he lost everyone he loved--until this new chance comes along and changes that. Therein lies what makes "Creed" soar: its beating heart, representative of blood, sweat, heart, and soul writ large on a figurative and literal canvas. This is the best film of 2015.

Film Information

Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Creed), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Graham McTavish (Tommy Holiday), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Hans Marrero (Flores), Tony Bellew ("Pretty Ricky" Conlan), Brian Anthony Wilson (James), Ritchie Coster (Pete Sporino), Jacob "Stitch" Duran (Stitch), Malik Bazille (Amir), Wood Harris (Tony "Little Duke" Burton), Gabe Rosado (Leo "The Lion" Sporino).

Directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Aaron Covington.

Rated PG-13 (violence, language, sensuality).

132 minutes.

Released on November 25, 2015.