“Now that we’re family, who won that third fight?”

The question on everyone’s mind gets answered immediately in Ryan Coogler‘sCreed: How can Michael B. Jordan be Apollo Creed’s son if he was already born throughout Carl Weather‘s run of four Rocky films? Well, Adonis Johnson (Jordan) isn’t that boy. Instead he’s a child out of wedlock whose mother was pregnant at the time of the boxer’s death. Sadly she also passed away leaving young Adonis in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention centers until Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) came around to honor her late husband’s memory and give ‘Donny’ a life outside the system. Coogler and cowriter Aaron Covington didn’t simply craft this story to make the ages work, though. This film’s ultimately about Adonis finding his identity like so many lost children.

That is the through-line above boxing and the Rocky franchise itself. Yes it’s a familiar world with the legendary Rocky ‘Italian Stallion’ Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) popping up as a long lost father figure helping his best friend’s son break into the life his own boy never embraced, but the story is Creed’s alone. Adonis fights because he has anger inside him. He quits his successful job and uproots himself from LA to Philadelphia because he has a burning desire to see what might happen—to see if he truly shares the same blood as the greatest boxer to ever fight. In fact, this whole endeavor is about family, of children following in their parents’ footsteps whether they’re comfortable in that shadow or itching to finally break free.

In this respect Creed‘s a legitimate artistic work exceling beyond reboot/sequel status despite being both. You don’t need to know the preceding six movies to understand what’s going on—although it helps since Coogler and company nicely never overtly throw in callbacks or feel the need to explain every little detail when it isn’t naturally pertinent to the dialogue. Adonis is just a kid who grew up without a father with a love for the same vocation pulsing through his veins. So when the offspring of Apollo’s former trainer (Wood Harris‘ Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton) refuses to help, the prodigal son has but one place left to go. And despite enjoying retirement quietly running his restaurant Adrian’s, Balboa needs Adonis as much as the boy does him.

The plot mirrors the original film but never feels wholly indebted to its memory while paving its own path forward. Similar to Balboa getting a title shot because Apollo Creed’s opponent is hurt at the eleventh hour, Adonis too finds fate intervening like it has since the moment he was conceived. British World Champ ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) has six months of freedom before a seven-year stint in jail—please forgive this contrivance—and his opponent is incapacitated. So the main ticket once again projects a fight of opportunism wherein the circus of underdog gets amplified even more by the name recognition of ‘Creed’. With only a few months before the match, Balboa and Adonis must work their butts off. The art of the montage remains intact.

Throw in a three-dimensional girlfriend for Creed in singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson) to supply a modernized version of the romance that blossom between Rocky and Adrian as well as the aging Champ watching time introduce a brand new challenge to contend with and you get a solid foundation with the perfect number of characters to supply the emotion heartstring tugs this type of feel good story covets. The beauty of Coogler’s efforts is that none of it feels forced. Relationships bend and break, tough love authentically keeps people apart, and tragedy befalls good people so they can get back up off the mat. Bianca isn’t a throwaway role and Rocky’s inclusion isn’t fan service. They are crucial to Adonis’ evolution as a fighter and especially as a man.

As for the choreographed bouts: each punch leaves a welt hard enough to make you wince. The climactic tussle is high-octane suspense and invigorating entertainment, but the real centerpiece is the warm-up match between Creed and the latest contender out of Mighty Mick’s gym Leo ‘The Lion’ Sporino (Gabe Rosado). Shot as a continuous take bobbing and weaving through close-ups behind the fighters and even following the lead to his corner between rounds, this sequence is a breathtaking vision of punishingly brutal force. It’s a whirlwind of emotion with everyone in-sync that will stick with you during Creed and Conlan’s main event. That one has an interesting “Mike’s Punch-Out” vibe at one point when the background grows dark to isolate the pair, but the first one is unforgettable.

While Coogler embraces the Hollywood boxing aesthetic with flourish, he still finds a way to elevate the material into a worthwhile story with the independent sensibility that made his Fruitvale Station a hit. Much of this stems from Jordan’s intense, emotive lead performance. His Adonis has a tough exterior, but his heart cannot be completely hidden underneath. Here’s a man who believed he’d been abandoned his whole life opening himself to a world he never knew existed until on the cusp of being a teenager. He’s refused the name Creed for so long because he never wanted it to define him and wasn’t sure if he deserved it. Jordan excels at showing this complex inner struggle—a mix of pain, guilt, rage, uncertainty, and love.

By his side is a Rocky Balboa like we’ve never seen before. He’s always possessed a sensitive blue-collar machismo, but never has he let it unravel him so thoroughly. There are many demons stemming from his career and Adrian’s death years ago stunting his emotional growth. Everyone is gone and only death waits in the wings. Then out of nowhere his past returns with a vengeance and a newfound will to survive. Stallone has never been better as he goes through the ringer of old age to match Jordan’s immense talent at each turn. Their characters thrive on being the underdog and working harder than anyone to overcome. The key has always been staying true to who they are, the fight—physical and mental—forever propelling them forward.

Score: 9/10

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 133 minutes | Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Ryan Coogler
Writer(s): Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington / Ryan Coogler (story) / Sylvester Stallone (characters)