There may not be anything more universal than an underdog story. It's an archetypal element of storytelling; one that has fueled ancient
mythology and modern cinema without losing its poignancy.

In cinema history, there are many masterful examples of the underdog. And among them, one has to rank the original 1976 Rocky highly.

Although it eventually became a parody of itself following an increasingly ridiculous string of sequels (before finally pulling out of its
nosedive with the admirable Rocky Balboa in 2006), that original film still stands as a monumental piece of filmmaking.

There is something about its raw look and feel (no doubt a product of its low budget) that lends itself so perfectly to the story.

Stallone's performance is magnetic and heartbreaking. We feel like this is what a true underdog is. Not a charming, attractive person with
some dirt on their face, but a sad, dopey guy who never realized his potential and who gets a shot at his long-forgotten dreams thanks to an
arrogant publicity stunt.

Whether Creed is as good as that film is inconsequential, because what we have here is easily the best film since the original, and an
astounding return to top form.

Creed is enthralling filmmaking. An underdog in its own right, the film is heartfelt, intelligent and exhilarating to the point of fist-pumping.

The film doesn't stray far from the franchise's root, but finally acknowledges Sylvester Stallone's age. He can't box anymore, and it's silly to
keep finding ways to put him back in the ring.

Instead, the film focuses on Apollo Creed's son, Adonis Johnson.

(For those who are a bit vague on the series, Apollo was Carl Weathers' character from the first four films, and Rocky's opponent in the
original film.)

Adonis never knew his father as a child, landing in a juvenile correctional facility before Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) offers take him
in. Mary Anne was Apollo's wife, but is not Adonis' mother.

This gripping opening sequence instantly sets a tone that we are watching the next generation of Rocky film, and not simply a sequel or
retread.

Mary Anne strictly forbids boxing. Her husband died in the ring, after all. But 17 years later, an adult Adonis (An excellent Michael B. Jordan)
can't escape the pull of the ring.

In the basement of the palace his father's fame built, he watches archival footage of Apollo fighting Rocky, punching along in synchrony
while Ludwig Goransson's genre-bending, rousing score reaches a powerful climax.

In true Rocky fashion, there are some exceptional training montages, brilliantly executed by director Ryan Coogler.

Coogler also showcases some outstanding camerawork during the film's boxing sequences, with one in particular that plays out in one
continuous shot. This extended take is incredibly impressive and skillfully draws us into the fight as if it's unfolding live. I would suspect
there is some fancy editing at play here, but it's seamlessly executed.

With obvious admiration, Adonis seeks out Rocky for his trainer.

Much where we last saw him, Rocky is running his restaurant, seemingly content with his life.

But in Adonis, he sees his old rival and friend, and eventually trains, and forms an endearing bond with the young fighter.

Adonis struggles with the legacy of his father, feeling he could never live up to the name.

Perhaps a metaphor for the film itself, as Creed boldly attempts to live up to its exceptional origins.

Stallone's work here is, simply put, superb. Rocky is Stallone. The character and the actor are virtually inseparable, and Stallone seems to
take special pride in delivering a wonderful, award-worthy performance in Creed.

There is something very special this time around, as the former champ becomes the trainer, we see Rocky contemplate his life, and deal
with a cancer diagnosis that threatens to end it.

As Adonis fights in the ring, so too does Rocky wage his own battle, and the two help each other to carry on despite their respective
struggles.

In addition to being thrilling and motivating, the film is genuinely heartfelt.

Creed also receives some very good supporting work from the aforementioned Rashad and Tessa Thompson as Adonis' girlfriend Bianca.

Much like the original Rocky, much of Creed isn't about boxing, but about people. And when we do get to those fights, they mean so much
more because we are emotionally invested in these characters.

The final match may be a bit ridiculous in pure boxing terms, but it's gripping and exhilarating nonetheless.

The final moments find Adonis giving encouragement as Rocky struggles to climb the famous steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of
Art. It's an exceptionally powerful sequence and, much like the film itself, an incredible high note to go out on should this be the final time
Stallone plays his career-defining role.

Despite all odds, Creed goes the distance, and is one of the best films of 2015.

* * * *
(out of four)
CREED
Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Written by: Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa
Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Tony Bellew

Cinematography by: Maryse Alberti

Music by: Ludwig Goransson

Released: November 25, 2015; 133 Minutes