Back in 1998, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) was a pugnacious kid struggling through a life in detention centres where he would frequently end up for getting into fights. Not having parents was a blight on his life, but his actual father had died before he was born, the boxing champion Apollo Creed, and Adonis had been the illegitimate result of an affair who was kept quiet about so as not to sully the sportsman's reputation. But that day in the late nineties was significant when in his cell he was visited by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the wife Apollo had cheated on who decided that Adonis, or Don as he was often called, deserved a chance at a stable home life and she brought him back with her where he had a much improved upbringing...
However, the long shadow of his father's legacy looms large in his life, prompting him to take up boxing himself - we actually catch up to the present day to find Jordan competing in a Tijuana bar match, to underline the major differences between the way he has gone and the way his father did. Don may have had a more pampered childhood after Mary Anne adopted him, but he has never forgotten that anger that he felt in his early days, and that's what spurs him on, not simply a drive to prove himself but to also escape the shame he feels about his origins. That's all very well, you may say, but Apollo Creed was not the main character in the movies he appeared in, as played by Carl Weathers, so where on Earth is Rocky?
He showed up presently, in the familiar guise of Sylvester Stallone who had been reluctant to go back to his most famous role after the success and apparently neat ending of his previous film Rocky Balboa, especially after his son Sage had passed away tragically young - as a boy, he had starred alongside his father in Rocky V. But writer and director Ryan Coogler had nursed this vision of making a Rocky sequel that concentrated on Apollo's son for some time, and after the success of his previous work with Jordan, Fruitvale Station, it seemed like the obvious choice for them to team up again (and how fortunate Jordan really does look as if he could be Weathers' son?). Stallone was won over by the quality of the screenplay and Coogler's sincerity, so what could have been as cheesy as the film that saw off Apollo, Rocky IV, ended up surprising a lot of people thanks to not treating the series as a nostalgic joke.
Considering the none more eighties Rocky IV, which marked effectively the inception point of Don's story, this could have been slightly embarrassing, yet sometimes when a filmmaker takes a property that could be kitsch and invests it with real sincerity, the consequences can catch you off guard, and by making Rocky the stand-in for the father Don never had, Coogler fashioned a relationship that respected the series' history yet found new places to take it, bolstered by a performance from Jordan that boosted all around him. When Don asks Rocky to help him train to really get somewhere in the boxing business, the older man is reluctant, just as Stallone had been, but when he realises how sincere Don is, and more importantly how he needs a strong male role model in his life to guide him, he relents, and this connection they have for the man Don never met and who Rocky counted as the person who transformed his life was a goldmine, even providing Stallone with a chance to prove he could genuinely act thanks to some well-crafted dialogue.
For much of this we had a relatively serious-minded drama, with Don finding love with an aspiring singer, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who lives in the flat below his and attracts his attention by playing her music too loud. This is because she is growing deaf, which in a refreshing turn proved to give Thompson something to do other than play the doting partner, yes it was a shade farfetched but that suited the Rocky series and its attitude to melodrama: Coogler knew what he was doing. However, as Rocky, who has seen all his friends and family fall away, has to face his own mortality now, it makes it all the more imperative that he tutors his new protégé into succeeding at his chosen profession, and he gets his chance when word gets out of Don's origins. There is a scandal that Apollo could not have been as admirable as the public thought he was, giving his son something more to prove, but also setting up a contest with the new champion in his weight class, played by real life boxer Tony Bellew who acquitted himself rather well as the sort of villain. But really it was Don's demons who are the villains, and a funny thing happens: Creed actually becomes unexpectedly moving when Don tries to prove to himself he hasn't been a "mistake". Better than it had any right to be, this was how to make a sequel that did justice to its past. Music by Ludwig Göransson.