Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in Creed.

Nine years ago, Sylvester Stallone seemingly closed the book on the Italian Stallion with Rocky Balboa, which featured a 60-year-old Rocky actually getting in the ring to fight somebody half his age.

This film made up for the lunacy of him getting into an illegal street fight with Tommy Gunn the last time we saw him (the abysmal Rocky V) and gave fans a more sophisticated, “officiated” type of violence to close out the Balboa saga. It was a little unrealistic, yes, but Rocky Balboa wound up being a cool and fitting conclusion to the franchise. Or so it seemed.

A few years ago, word leaked that Ryan Coogler, the promising director of Fruitvale Station, was going to fire up the Rocky machine again, focusing on Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis. There was also speculation that a certain lovable oaf with grey sweatpants and a droopy lip would be Adonis’ coach. The whole thing seemed a bit farfetched.

However, Coogler came through—and now we have Creed, with Michael B. Jordan of Fruitvale Station as Adonis, and the one and only Stallone as Rocky yet again. Coogler’s film manages to be an original work while paying homage to the classic series—and it’s the best Rocky movie since the 1976 original. There’s plenty of life in the old Stallion after all.

The film opens in the late 1990s as an angry teenager gets into a fight at a juvenile-detention center. A kind woman unexpectedly shows up to visit young Adonis. That woman is Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), widow of Apollo Creed. Apollo was a bit randy in his heyday—and had a son out of wedlock. Adonis is that son, and the charitable Mary Anne wants him to come home and live with her. 

The film then moves to the present day. Adonis has grown up to be a responsible man with a job in finance—but it doesn’t suit him. He moonlights in Mexico with boxing matches, and eventually decides he wants to be a professional fighter. He winds up in Philadelphia, seeking the help of his father’s friend, the former heavyweight champion of the world.

At first, Rocky just isn’t into it. He’d rather visit the grave of his wife, Adrian, which is now next to the grave of Paulie, who died in between Rocky Balboa and Creed. Of course, Rocky eventually can’t resist the temptation to show off his punching knowledge and his chicken-chasing trick—so a new boxing combo is off and running.

Jordan may be the most-convincing make-believe boxer in the series, and that includes Stallone. He has a physical resemblance to Carl Weathers (who played Apollo) and looks like he could strike up a pro career in the ring. His performance is across-the-boards excellent. Tessa Thompson proves invaluable as Bianca, Adonis’ neighbor and love interest, an aspiring musician who is dealing with progressive hearing loss. The love story is quite sweet.

Stallone could find himself in contention for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination given his work in Creed. He makes the character the warm, lovable lug he was in the original, a sweetheart of a guy who could kill you with one punch. The movie has a dramatic twist that gives Stallone a chance to show the vulnerability of this character, and he’s impressive. It is, far and away, the performance of his career.

Coogler makes some of the best movie fight sequences since Scorsese’s Raging Bull; the first fight plays like one take. The final bout, between Adonis and Irish villain “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), is sports cinema at its very best. Coogler also finds a way to weave that iconic Bill Conti music into the score at perfect moments.

When Rocky IV came out in 1985, I complained about how stupid it was. I genuinely hated it. However, without Rocky IV, which killed off Apollo at the hands of cartoon character Ivan Drago, we wouldn’t have Creed. I guess I’m retroactively grateful for the existence of Rocky IV.

Creed is playing at theaters across the valley.