Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified the statue atop Philadelphia’s City Hall . This version has been updated.
One of the instincts you develop in the job of a critic is defense. The ability to guard against the jabs of cheap sentiment is essential if one wants to stay in the match — or to at least know what hit him. And so it is with some surprise that I admit to being fairly knocked out by “Creed,” a movie that is not just about boxing, which I have never cared about, but also is a sequel to the “Rocky” franchise, which I pretty much gave up on 25 years ago, roundabout “Rocky V.”
This latest addition to the tale of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who comes out of retirement to mentor the talented but inexperienced son (Michael B. Jordan) of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), is a touching, affectionate and undeniably thrilling continuation of the almost 40-year-old saga. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali, the real-life inspiration for the character of Apollo, “Creed” floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
In some ways, it’s not really a “Rocky” movie at all; it’s the first of the series not written by Stallone. In other ways, it’s quintessentially one. Centering on Jordan’s “Donny” (for Adonis) Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (who died in the ring at the hands of Soviet fighter Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV”), “Creed” relegates Stallone’s Rocky to a supporting, yet still key, role: that of the gray eminence represented by Burgess Meredith, as Rocky’s trainer Mickey, in the early films. Here, Rocky takes on the role of the pugilistic seer, a punch-drunk Yoda given to uttering such pearls of wisdom as “One step, one punch,” as he squints at his young protégé.
Jordan is the star, not Stallone.
And yet Donny, who struggles with his temper — a coping mechanism that helps him deal with the fear of not living up to the name Creed, which he has yet to embrace — is every bit a worthy successor to Rocky. Having won only small fights in Mexico before moving from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, where he seeks Rocky’s help, Donny is the classic underdog. Yet after his first pro bout in Philly, it comes out that he’s a Creed. Before he knows it, Donny has been challenged to a match by the light heavyweight world champion (played by professional boxer Tony Bellew, from Liverpool).
Of course, it’s on account of Donny’s genes, not his talent. The fighter must get into shape, courtesy of Rocky, who uses some of the same tricks (chasing chickens) that were used on him way back when.
That’s the skeleton on which the meat of this story hangs. There are some viscerally powerful boxing scenes, but ultimately the flesh of “Creed” has almost as much to do with relationships as it does with the sweet science. Both the friendship between Donny and Rocky, whom the young man endearingly calls “Unc,” and the shyly sweet romance that Donny embarks on with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring musician who lives below him, are finely etched. The connections feel real and complicated. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, who worked with Jordan on the excellent “Fruitvale Station,” knows how to get the most out of his star, whose performance in “Creed” is rich and rewarding enough to wash the taste of “Fantastic Four” out of the mouth.
The city of Philly is like a main character, too. Evoking a sense of place that goes deeper than shots of the William Penn statue atop City Hall, Coogler evinces an affection for the City of Brotherly Love that feels both genuine and knowing. Scenes shot at Max’s Steaks, Johnny Brenda’s and the Electric Factory add texture, as does a simultaneously amusing and stirring sequence featuring several of North Philly’s infamous dirt bike riders popping wheelies alongside Donny as he jogs — clad in a more stylish version of Rocky’s iconic sweats — through the streets.
“Creed” is not melodrama-free. A subplot involving Rocky’s health, hinted at in one of the film’s trailers, feels tired and thin. Yet the themes of love, loyalty, ambition, honor and legacy that lend sinew to the story are delivered with such a clean punch that they as feel as fresh as they did in 1976.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence, crude language and sensuality. 133 minutes.