‘Creed’ review: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone punch up ‘Rocky’ mythos

“Creed” digs through the cliches and familiar archetypes of the “Rocky” franchise to achieve the improbable: it makes the very old seem new again.

The picture passes the torch from the Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, for the seventh time) to Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of Carl Weathers’ late Apollo, a terrific fighter in his own right making his way up the ranks while trying to face the legacy of the father he never knew.

The film is directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, who made “Fruitvale Station” with Jordan and comes from the independent film world, and it plays at once gritty and grounded, transplanting these familiar characters out of the realm of cheesy sequels and into something approaching reality.

It’s an impressive achievement, reclaiming an iconic narrative and making it breathe as something else, and it’s carried out by the filmmaker’s painstaking commitment to character details above spectacle.

The boxing scenes stand out and the picture pulsates with energy that reflects its determined main character. You can feel Adonis’ relentless passion in fast-moving street scenes scored to a hip hop-laden soundtrack, within the series’ iconic training montages and other expected tropes given modern texture thanks to Coogler’s seamless visual sensibilities.

The filmmaker isn’t content to simply make “Rocky VII,” of course. The movie engages with the ghosts of the past and the realities of time’s relentless march forward. It is as much about us, and our association with this nearly 40-year series, as it is about its characters. Adonis tearfully watches footage of Rocky sparring with Apollo projected on a giant screen, shadow boxing in the flickering light. There are images of Philadelphia’s Rocky statue. Rocky himself is more vulnerable than ever, slowed by illness and limited by the realities that even the greatest and most perfect of fighters can’t remain that way forever.

And Stallone’s performance, rife with the sadness and acceptance of Rocky’s aging, is also filled with a quality we haven’t seen from the icon before: wisdom and grace.