Forget "Fantastic Four." Michael B. Jordan is back, ripped, reckless and rousing in "Creed."
The "Rocky" franchise is given new life with the story of Apollo Creed's illegitimate son Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Jordan), who was born following the fighter's death in the ring in "Rocky IV." Although Donnie never knew his father, he was raised in his shadow after being plucked from foster care by the boxer's compassionate widow (Phylicia Rashad). As a young man, Donnie has established a cushy white-collar life in Los Angeles, but moonlights fighting in shady bouts south of the border. A boxer's life calls to him, pulling him to Philadelphia, and to his departed dad's old friend and rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
Beautifully captured in loving establishing shots and colorful location shoots, Philly is where Donnie builds a reputation while keeping his Creed heritage secret. He finds a gruff but loving father figure in good ol' Rock, and a kindred soul in love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson of "Dear White People"), a musician afflicted with progressive hearing loss. This trio understands how short a heyday can be, and forges a family to support each other in victories and defeats.
A portrait of internal conflict, Donnie wants to follow in his father's footsteps but resents both his absence and living as a skeleton in Apollo's closet. With set-jaw determination, vibrant charisma and a brewing rage, Jordan masterfully builds this riveting blend of love and pain. Then in comes Stallone.
Fronted by a rising star and a former A-lister who's skirting has-been status, "Creed" carries an undeniable meta context. But Stallone has inhabited Rocky for so long that he easily slips into the role, strutting around with an ease and confidence that will make audiences fall hard for him all over again. Moreover, he and Jordan play perfect foils: Rocky is resigned, living in the past; Donnie is on fire, gunning for his future. Theirs is a bond forged on stubbornness and a love of life. And like the movie says, "It ain't about how hard you can hit. It's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward." So when both are dealt dizzying blows, they fuel each other with terms they can relate to: "If I fight, you fight."
"Creed" will make you want to stand up and cheer. The script, by Aaron Covington and director Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station"), so understands the beats of the franchise, that you don't need to know boxing, or even "Rocky," to fall into Donnie's tale of personal triumph. Easy exposition provides context as needed, and Coogler carves out characters that are rich with detail, and made radiant by powerful performances.
Giving Bianca confidence, complexity and charm, Thompson measures up to her co-stars impeccably, creating an Adrian for a new age. Real-life boxer Tony Bellew brings fitting bulk and bravado to the role of Donnie's opponent Pretty Ricky Conlan.
While there's earnest homage to the iconic franchise -- the statue, the "Italian Stallion" name and that theme that still makes my heart sing -- Coogler distinguishes "Creed" as Donnie's story rather than a retread of Rocky's. He races through the Philly streets flanked by cheering young black men riding dirt bikes, "12 O'Clock Boys" style. Bianca is a no-nonsense R&B singer who demands her beau "keep it 100." And in a moment of intimacy, Donnie delicately braids Bianca's hair as they discuss what it would mean for him to take on the last name Creed. All of that makes for a movie that's both true to its franchise, yet satisfyingly fresh.
"Creed" is flat-out phenomenal. Beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, smartly written and suavely directed, it's a gorgeous film about adversity, triumph, family and the dignity that can be found in defeat. It's exactly the kind of big, bold movie we crave in awards season, and it's finally here to knock you out.
"Creed" opens Wednesday nationwide.