“Creed”: A graceful passing of the baton that’s anything but rocky

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“Creed” is now playing at Point, Palace, AMC Fitchburg and Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 2:12, three and a half stars out of four.

Anyone who wants to understand how formula doesn’t dictate form should watch the new “Creed” and this summer’s “Southpaw” back-to-back. Both are boxing dramas that follow a similar arc, hitting many of the same notes. But while “Southpaw” felt forced and melodramatic, “Creed” is a hugely entertaining and rousing film. Same ingredients, different result.

It helps that “Creed” is following in the footsteps of the master, 1976’s “Rocky.” In many ways, this is the seventh installment in the four-decade-old series, and the best since the original. But it’s also very much its own movie, with its own feel and texture, its own hero, and a graceful handing of the baton from one champ to the next.

Writer-director Ryan Coogler reteams with his “Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s old rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed. Apollo died in the ring while Adonis’ mother was still pregnant with him, and Adonis spends his childhood growing up in group homes and facilities, abandoned, fighting with other kids. When Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) takes him in, it’s the first time anyone has reached out to him.

Fast-forward a few years, and Adonis, under his adopted mother’s tutelage, has become a successful young financier, living in his father’s mansion. But he still has his father in him, the itch to fight, and goes down to Tijuana at night to box for cash in dive bars. Eventually, he decides to quit his white-collar job and head to Philadelphia, to persuade the long-retired Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. But anonymously, without using his father’s name to trade on.

“Creed” rather elegantly echoes the trajectory of the original Rocky, with Adonis reminiscent of the young Rocky trying to find a new identity in the ring. Jordan is immensely effective in the role, likable and confident, wearing the mantle of the franchise on his broad shoulders lightly but reverently. And Stallone does some of his best work in a long, long time as the old mentor, his face like a crumbling monument, trying to impart some wisdom to the young man (“One step, one punch, one round at a time”) even as the experience clearly rejuvenates his own sense of purpose. There’s a quick scene of the two of them working speed bags side by side, and you can’t tell if the pure joy radiating from their faces is coming from the characters or the actors.

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Like in the original “Rocky,” all of this is building towards a fight that Creed clearly isn’t ready for, a championship bout with a Liverpudlian brawler (Tony Bellew) who needs one big-money fight before he goes away to prison for a few years, and knows that fighting Creed’s son will make headlines. The screenplay by Coogler and Aaron Covington is aware that it’s walking a familiar path, but does so lovingly, and makes sure to blend in fresh elements, much like the score that blends hip-hop and Bill Conti’s original theme.

Those fresh elements are especially evident in Coogler’s filmmaking, which involve some long, fluid takes, including one of the most amazing examples of the form I’ve ever seen, an entire boxing match shot as a single, several-minutes-long take. The technique is not just virtuosity, but gives the audience the feel of being there in the ring, caught with nowhere else to go except through the other guy. But Coogler also uses those extended takes to let us sink into the scene, feel like we’re spending time with the characters as they bond. A romance between Creed and a singer (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People”) doesn’t feel obligatory, but an essential relationship in his journey.

All of this, in case you can’t tell, had me completely invested in “Creed,” watching that climactic fight as if I had never seen a boxing movie before. It’s that good. If you don’t feel a thrill when, during that championship bout, the original “Rocky” theme suddenly kicks in, I can’t help you.

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