Creed is the best Rocky film since Rocky" has very obviously become the conventional wisdom, but I don't think it goes far enough. Creed is, I would much rather say, the best Rocky film, period. And that includes having the best depiction of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) himself, as a tired, sorry old man who reluctantly permits himself to have a reason to engage with life again, years after he'd decided to disappear into himself. And Rocky's not even the character the movie cares about the most, or graces with its best material.

That would instead be Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), a resentful young African-American in Los Angeles who happens to be the illegitimate youngest son of late boxer Apollo Creed (who died in 1985's Rocky IV, which does terrible things to intra-series continuity - it's not possible that Donnie is 29 years old in this film - but why permit a hilariously bad movie like Rocky IV to ruin a wonderful film like Creed?), former personal friend and professional rival of Rocky. For most of his life, Donnie has lived as the adopted child of Creed's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and has quietly resented the father who died before he was even born, anxiously working to define his own independent identity, while harboring an obsession with Apollo's name and legacy. Against Mary Anne's passionate desires, he wants to become a boxer, but on his terms and without anybody handing out free help due to his parentage. Outside of using it to drag a reluctant Rocky back out of retirement to serve as his trainer, after he relocates to Philadelphia to help bury all the traces of his past.

From this point onward, Creed is a fairly direct re-tread of the first Rocky, with the same major A-plot (a champion fighter looking for an easy match plucks the untested nobody out of obscurity for the PR blitz it enables), and a B-plot following Donnie's clumsy-sweet courtship of a local woman: Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a struggling singer-songwriter. As retreads go, though, it's a striking one. It's illuminating to compare this film to the same season's Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a pair of sixth sequels to a film that devoured the cultural Zeitgeist in the middle-late 1970s, both of them effectively serving as remakes of the first movie with the original star reconceived as a wise mentor. Creed is way the hell better at it. It helps, undoubtedly, that this is a boxing movie, and there are only like three boxing movie scenarios anyway (physically and emotionally damaged boxer reconnects with his family; boxer gets on the wrong side of the mob and has to make a moral choice; nobody boxer gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance at stardom), so the degree to which this is a specific retread is muted.

The real difference between the two is that The Force Awakens invests in nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, while Creed's evocation of Rocky is paradoxically good at making the new film feel fresh and full of its own concerns and insights. Screenwriters Ryan Coogler (who also directs) & Aaron Covington's transmutation of the Rocky scenario into the year 2015 serves primarily to throw sharp lines around what, exactly, "the year 2015" means: little tiny things like the influx of computer technology and new media, the different way that generations interact, and especially how being a young African-American male in the 2010s is a very distinct thing that is different than the distinct thing of being a young Italian-American male in the 1970s. Without ever stopping itself cold to put a Message in anybody's mouth or ripping plots from the headlines (and indeed because it fails to do anything that artless), Creed is maybe the most incisive depiction of the current state of African-American masculinity that 2015 cinema has produced, particularly though the exceptionally finely-etched character of Donnie, a middle-class black man (even upper class; Mary Anne Creed's house looks gorgeous, and Los Angeles is hardly cheap) who feels compelled to adopt a life of poverty and anonymity to gain an authentic identity of his own. Jordan plays the subtleties of that part with extraordinary delicacy even as he's giving full attention to Donnie's primary character arc, in which resentment and anger are gradually replaced by maturity and wisdom, as well as playing the best surrogate father drama in years. If there was any doubt that Jordan is in the top tier of under-30 American actors, Creed completely eradicates it.

How about that surrogate father angle, though - what Creed has that puts it over Rocky, I think, is a much deeper, more special story of the relationship between resentfully fatherless Donnie and lost & lonely Rocky. Too much of its best material heads squarely into spoiler territory, including the exact moment where Creed as a whole shifted in my head from "this is real damn good" to "this is one of the finest American films of 2015", but the sense of personal betrayal and connection it allows Jordan to play is heartbreaking, and the sullen sadness that it grants to Rocky and Stallone is a damned miracle: this is one of the most nuanced roles Stallone has ever been given, and leaps up to the rarefied company of the first Rocky, First Blood, and Cop Land as one of the few times he's been called upon to do some truly exemplary acting. It's a generous film to its actors: Thompson has a surprisingly full amount of story to play in the stock "boxer's girlfriend" role, and does terrific work with it; Rashad, in little more than an extended cameo, is devastating in her fear and motherly rage.

Besides confirming Jordan's place at the top of his field, Creed also proves that Ryan Coogler - an under-30 himself - has the makings of one of our most exciting filmmakers. His breakout indie, Fruitvale Station, was all kinds of promising - for one thing, it was Jordan's first solo starring vehicle - but had a lot of stiffness in stylistic gestures, a fairly rudimentary aesthetic vocabulary, an annoying tendency to show and tell simultaneously. I don't know that any of those weak points remain in Creed, which makes far better use of onscreen expository text than he was ever able to figure out with his last film, uses the script far more sparingly when well-tuned acting and ellipsis can get the idea across, and has a much more interesting and clever visual style. Creed is in a way a tug-of-war between the immediate presence of Donnie and the nostalgic reverie of Rocky, and this is presence not just in the way the actors inhabit their characters and the words they've given to say, but even how Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti (a documentary veteran who spent 2015 pushing back into features after years away) frame them. When the focus of a scene is on Donnie, the cinematography is very modern-indie: close-ups, shaky hand-held. When the focus is more on Rocky, the aesthetic shifts very subtly but distinctly into the urban realism of '70s New Hollywood filmmaking: longer and wider shots, smoother camera movements, soaking in real locations in static shots that situate the actors in a relatively small portion of the frame.

It's unshowy, exquisite filmmaking, with lots of smart filmmaking to shore it up - besides Alberti's beautifully ugly urban photography, the editing by Michael P. Shawver and Claudio Castello is always perfectly attuned to the fluctuating energy levels of the scenes, with a particularly well-cut boxing match at the climax, frenzied and anxious to muddy our sense of continuity. And Ludwig Göransson's score is one of the year's best, glancing to Rocky's iconic cues, both triumphal and melancholy, without ever fully quoting any of them except in the moments when they really count (one of those is another spoiler - God, how happily angry I was at the movie for pulling out such a perfectly iconic swatch of music at just the right moment to feel like a swift series of punches to the gut. You'll definitely know it when you see it).

Simply put, Creed is a masterwork: drawing from modern American myth (what is Rocky if not mythic?) in order to re-establish the grotty realism of that myth, and to re-work it for the modern age; providing a brilliant showcase for one of our best young actors; giving an iconic figure (and the steadfast actor playing him) all of his dignity and fortitude back, and making him an evocative emblem of how time simply refuses to ease up on any of us; taking an incisive snapshot of How America Is without having to present a whole thesis statement about it. This is what populist American cinema should always be doing: providing an effortlessly captivating crowd-pleaser that's strong on humanity, full of brains, and crafted with totally unyielding confidence.