If you’re wondering whether “Star Wars,” the most dominant franchise of the 1970s and ’80s, can be revitalized next month, you should find a new hope in “Creed.”
Filmmaker Ryan Coogler brings both a fresh and lived-in approach to this continuation of “Rocky,” the second-most successful series of that era.
Coogler reteams with his “Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan for a powerful drama about damaged individuals struggling against adversity. It doesn’t muster the pure underdog audacity of the first “Rocky,” but it does pair some exceptional actors with engaging characters.
The most revelatory of these is Rocky Balboa himself: Sylvester Stallone. The 69-year-old writer and star of the original 1976 hit (the last best picture winner to be made for under $1 million) emerges as so likable and confident that he almost erases the memory of the one-note action heroes (“Cobra,” anyone?) of his post-“Rocky” career.
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But it’s a supporting role. The hero of this film is Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky’s deceased nemesis Apollo Creed. We meet Donny as a youth while he’s pounding the snot out of a fellow inmate in juvenile detention.
“He’s a good kid. He just … fights,” a caseworker says.
Donny lands a cushy job in the financial sector but still moonlights boxing professionally in Tijuana dive bars, where he has amassed a record of 16-0 without anyone suspecting his heritage. But the Creed bloodline proves too potent. He quits his job to move to Philly in hopes of training with Rocky, who now runs a restaurant and hasn’t stood near a ring in years.
After much pestering, Rocky eventually agrees to train the upstart.
“You don’t stop, do you? You’re like a woodpecker,” Rocky tells him.
Donny also meets downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People”), a musician battling progressive hearing loss. She’s not a fan of his sport, though she respects his dedication to it.
Anyone familiar with the arc of the original film will figure out where this is headed: a marquee matchup with the light heavyweight champion (fearsome British titleholder Tony Bellew).
However, “Creed” doesn’t depend on the rah-rah component. The compelling material comes from the subtle interactions. Is there a better first date or first kiss in a movie this year than the one Donny and Bianca share? Coogler stages the scenes with delicacy and poise, perfectly capturing the way the pair flirt without openly flirting. These encounters evoke the fine slice-of-life passages in the remarkable biopic “Fruitvale Station” that helped establish Jordan as an Oscar-caliber actor.
“Creed” establishes its own easy rhythms, such as the moody hip-hop soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson (“Top Five”) that replaces the brilliantly bombastic orchestrations of Bill Conti in the original.
The film finds some great visual moments as well, as when Donny shadowboxes in front of a big-screen TV playing YouTube videos of Creed vs. Balboa. Most impressive is an entire match appearing as one unbroken shot, with the camera darting between the combatants like an unseen third opponent.
The film disappoints only in its third act, when the boxing overtakes the character drama. Well-choreographed but repetitive, the haymaker-heavy finale actually slows the momentum. It also offers the least surprising plot developments.
Early in the movie, Donny’s stepmom (Phylicia Rashad) tells him, “You are your father’s son. You are part of him. But it doesn’t mean you have to be him.”
For the most part, Coogler, Jordan and Stallone follow that advice when resuscitating the “Rocky” legacy.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Opens at 7 p.m. Tuesday
Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality