Alright, let’s get some Oscar-season reviews going. December was a big movie-going month for me, as is pretty standard for the winter. Thanks, Hollywood, for giving me/other cold-weather people/actually most people something to do that involves spending a minimum of $15.

I came into Creed having seen “some” Rocky films. Honestly, I can’t tell you which ones. I don’t really feel like looking them up; I assume I and II. I know about the Russian guy and Apollo Creed and how Milo Ventimiglia was in the most recent reboot that didn’t do so well. I know about punching the meat and running up the stairs and yelling “Yo Adrian!” If all of that stuff (and nothing more) sounds familiar to you, you’ll be fine seeing this movie. There’s no need to rewatch all 2600 Rocky movies in an attempt to catch up.

Creed does a really nice, understated job of honoring Rocky lore, if I may be so bold as to say that considering my aforementioned semi-inexperience with the canon. I was most impressed by the fact that the film didn’t try to douse us with nostalgia — instead, the references were overt, brief and elegant. When Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) first meets up with Rocky (Sly, duh), we see old photos on the walls of Rocky’s restaurant, still images taken directly from the previous movies. When Donnie and Rocky hit up the gym, there’s a deference paid to Rocky by all the gym-goers that feels hesitant, almost embarrassing, and thus natural. When Donnie fights, he wears a variation of his father’s flag shorts. When Donnie and Rocky climb the stairs, it’s not to reenact the famous scene — it’s to acknowledge it. In other words, the movie only dwells on the past as much as the characters actually would if they were real people. They’re not winking at the camera at all.

That being said, I found the whole storyline around Donnie using his father’s last name — Creed, duh — publicly to be rather tenuous. In fact, the whole storyline was rather tenuous. Donnie was in LA working and fighting underground in Mexico, then he was in Philly, then very quickly he was fighting big fights and flip-flopping on what he’d call himself in the public eye. The movie recognizes this hyper-speed progression, and acknowledges it, but this doesn’t change the fact that it feels awkward and forced. The only thing that doesn’t feel forced, though, is probably the most forced element — that he seeks out and insists on Rocky’s coaching, and that Rocky doesn’t take too much cajoling to get on board. I guess I would have liked to see Donnie build up his reputation a bit more, and have him learn about his father more, rather than the whole storyline be contingent on the fact that he didn’t have a reputation and didn’t know his father. We’ve seen those progressions before and they’re too easy. Both Jordan and Stallone deserve a little better.

As I was confronting this disappointing element of the movie, it occurred to me that most boxing movies are like this, and I end up loving them anyway. By “this,” I mean that the ramp-up to the climactic fight is far too quick to be believable. It always seems like the underdog jumps in with no training and guts out a near-death win. I guess that’s the skeleton of a boxing movie, though. I just wonder if actual boxing mirrors this track — so often you see two guys go head-to-head with perfect records, but you never question where the records come from. Creed points a finger at this discrepancy — and doesn’t go for the cliche final win, either — which earns it several arbitrary points from me.

Speaking of actual boxing, it turns out that the guy Donnie fights, Pretty Ricky Conlon, is played by a real boxer, Tony Bellew! This threw me off significantly because MBJ/Wallace got SUPER RIPPED for the role. Like, this ripped. And it didn’t seem right that the guy they cast against him was… not that ripped. Turns out not all boxers need rippling muscles in order to kick ass. Sorry I got distracted by biceps, y’all.

Onto the characters. MBJ is incredible, of course. Unsurprising, considering his resume. Sly is, too, though he’s incredibly hard to understand and I definitely could have used subtitles for at least 50% of what he said. But a lot of his acting was facial, subtle, emotional — stuff he hasn’t really had to do in previous movies (Rocky or otherwise), and it was really powerful seeing his range through the lifespan of this character he created. We really, truly see another side of Rocky here, the side that’s the former legend/fallen hero/regular guy/widow. Post-glory, he’s changed a lot.

I also enjoyed the love story between Donnie and Bianca (Tessa Thompson), though Bianca went from being an interesting character in the first half of the movie to a female prop in the second half. Just when I was starting to enjoy her musical stylings and her explanations of the word “jawn,” she fell by the wayside and the fight scenes took precedent. I know we all come and stay for those, but still. I could have sacrificed one or two minutes of brute violence for more insight into her personality. The brute violence was also hard to take in general, even though it was beautifully filmed, because one of the previews before Creed was for Concussion, so brain damage was… on the brain even before the movie started. Yikes.

Philly doesn’t seem like a glamorous place, but seeing this movie amped me up for a visit. (A jawnt?) It’s rather lovely how a real place has embraced the legend of a fictional character, and made him part of their story. Even more lovely is how Sly himself allowed Rocky to age gracefully — and let a(nother) young gun step into the ring in his stead.