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Like its hard-hitting title character, the boxing drama "Creed" has something to prove that it can live up to its name and its legacy as a continuation of the "Rocky" saga and it does so spectacularly.
The movie first finds its title character in Los Angeles, 1998. Young Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) is in juvenile detention for fighting, a skill he comes by honestly as the son of the late, great heavyweight champ Apollo Creed.
Adonis was born after the fighter's untimely death in the ring (killed by the Russian Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV"), the product of an extramarital affair. Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), rescued Adonis from the foster-care system and raised him as her own.
Flash-forward 17 years, and Adonis (now played by Michael B. Jordan) has a respectable office job. But he still seeks to fight, boxing in club matches in Tijuana on the weekends. He decides he will become a fighter full-time, but he can't get a trainer in the L.A. gym where his father made his name. So he heads for where else? Philadelphia, to lure Apollo's former rival and best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), out of retirement to be his trainer.
While Rocky envisions Adonis working his way up slowly, others think differently. When word gets out that Adonis is Apollo's kid, it attracts the attention of the reigning champ, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (played by Liverpool-born fighter Tony Bellew), who needs a final payday before going to prison.
While Adonis and Rocky form a bond, influenced heavily by Rocky's friendship with Apollo, Adonis also makes time with his new neighbor Bianca ("Dear White People" star Tessa Thompson), an aspiring club singer and record producer.
Director Ryan Coogler, in only his second movie, shows a command of his craft that belies his relative inexperience. Adonis' training montages are energetic and avoid many of the clichés such sequences often deploy clichés that the "Rocky" series practically invented. The fight scenes are riveting, especially one bravura scene that follows Adonis into the ring, from first bell to a second-round knockout, in what looks like one unbroken shot.
Where Coogler, co-writing with Aaron Covington, also excels is in establishing Adonis as his own man, apart from but still in the shadow of his legendary father. Jordan gives a full-blooded performance that captures not only Adonis' physicality but his conflicted heart. Jordan and Coogler also worked together on the director's debut, the Sundance Film Festival winner "Fruitvale Station," and they may be the most dynamic actor/director team since Robert De Niro met Martin Scorsese.
Best of all, Coogler reminds us of the glory of Rocky Balboa without wallowing in nostalgia. He does this by collaborating with Stallone, giving a beautifully shaded performance, to explore the ex-boxer's poise in his twilight years. Not all the fights in "Creed" are in the ring, and Coogler, Jordan and Stallone get the viewer fully invested in the outcomes.
The "Rocky" saga continues beautifully, with director Ryan Coogler's taking a fresh approach through the story of the determined son of Apollo Creed.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality.
Running time • 133 minutes.