Overview: The illegitimate son of boxer Apollo Creed comes to terms with himself and his legacy as he fights for the title with the help of Rocky Balboa.  Warner Bros./MGM; 2015; Rated PG-13; 133 minutes.

What’s In a Name: Ryan Coogler’s Creed faces the extraordinary task of living up to a beloved namesake and, at the same time, carving its own identity. With so many sports films to follow Rocky’s lead, in addition to that film’s five sequels, it was never a safe bet that Coogler could provide something both different and indispensable to the franchise, or to boxing dramas in general. At best, many of us hoped for a chance to reap the well-produced benefits of fandom, while once again finding reason to reaffirm that first film’s untouchable greatness. But Creed’s production and narrative, of legacy and expectation, is also the narrative at the center of Adonis Creed’s journey, giving the film a meta-textual weight that extends beyond its fictional boundaries. Just as Adonis eagerly seeks out Rocky Balboa for tutelage early in the film, Creed eagerly embraces the fact that it is, in many ways beyond its familiar namesakes, a sequel to Rocky from the beginning. Creed does so much more than place Apollo Creed’s son and Rocky Balboa in a boxing movie. Rather, the movie forms around the characters, adjusting to their rhythms and histories in order to create the most empathetic journey, not simply the most efficient route to the final match.

Just as John G. Alvidsen’s film did almost 40 years ago, Creed situates us in place and character, putting emphasis on relationships and self-examination over ringside noise. The facades of familiar Philadelphia locales have been slightly revamped and given new coats of paint, our familiar characters are older and a little worse for wear, the tunes have changed to provide the movie with a pulse of its own, and our lead character’s background is drastically different from Rocky’s, but underneath all of these necessary changes is that same beating heart reminder that the legacy of Rocky has always been about more than boxing.

Men in the Mirror: There’s an inherent likeability to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis “Donny” Creed. He is quick to anger, arrogant, not because of his name, but in spite of it, and a little pushy. But these traits all feel like honest products of circumstance and time. Despite his flaws, he’s also compassionate, hardworking, and afraid, all the same qualities that made us fall in love with a bum from the neighborhood years ago. The fact that Adonis comes from wealth is just as seemingly detrimental to his desire to be taken seriously as a boxer as Rocky’s lack of wealth was to him. With the privilege of legacy also comes the cost of a name, and Creed, like Rocky, is another name that looks good on paper because it has the weight of history behind it, and because it can be used to form a false identity around the person. For much of the film we see Adonis fight against his namesake, even literally shadowboxing against a projection of his father during his fight with Rocky. Yet his struggle to be his own man, to prove his worth can’t be accomplished on his own, because there is both power and a lack of power in a name, and this theme not only runs through Adonis’ story, but also through Rocky’s.

Creed returns us to the lonesome Rocky of the first film, complete with the black ball he bounced and hat cocked to the side. He’s familiar to the neighborhood, but with his family and friends gone, he’s also become somewhat forgotten, a name stuck in old newspaper clippings that seemingly no longer has relevance. He has become what he never wanted to be: A nobody. But Creed overcomes what so many of the Rocky sequels couldn’t by reminding us that being somebody and being remembered for greatness doesn’t come from trophies, or fame, but from family. Through Adonis, Rocky becomes unstuck and meaningful again. We may not see Rocky duking it out in the ring, but his fight in this film is no less important than when he first faced off against the film’s namesake. Sylvester Stallone delivers an awards-worthy, refreshingly vulnerable, and open-hearted take on the graying character, proving that it was never external strength that has made the character persevere, but his spirit.

Going the Distance: Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington not only create a love story between Adonis and musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), but also a love story between Adonis and Rocky. The three of them form their own family of people who are beaten down by life, but who also possess the courage to keep going alongside one another. When joined together, these separate character personalities are used to provide the film with a unique aesthetic that not only celebrates the franchise’s legacy, but also this film’s individual identity.  Bianca and Adonis’ relationship is key in helping the film capture the realism and language of Coogler’s take on Philadelphia, one that celebrates its black identity just as the first film celebrated the working-class, Italian-American identity. Rocky and Adonis’ relationship achieves the perfect balance of humor and commitment through their new and old-school mentalities without ever feeling cheap or tonally deaf. This weaving together of different philosophies, styles, and cultures is emphasized by composer Ludwig Göransson’s beautiful themes for each character, featuring samplings of Bill Conti’s original score, which ultimately crescendo in a powerful, trumpeting, central theme that can easily stand next to “Gonna Fly Now.”

By the time we get to the final boxing match, every aspect of this giant machine is so well-oiled that the film seems to glide on all the power it has built up. Coogler’s handle on the film provides the finale with a match that’s brutal and stylish, and that never loses sight of Adonis and Rocky’s individual, internal battles. Once Rocky utters Mickey’s classic line, “I love you, kid,” and “Going the Distance,” the film’s original theme, starts blasting, nothing is held back, be it from the performers, the filmmakers, or the assuredly emotional audience watching with racing hearts and wet eyes.

Overall: Creed may very well be the most emotionally satisfying, nostalgia-driven film of the year because it doesn’t simply rely on our familiarity, but gives us something new to celebrate, connect to, and believe in. This is big-hearted drama at its best, and the cinematic celebration of identity and legacy that we’ve been waiting for.

Grade: A

Featured Image: Warner Bros./MGM