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Don’t go assuming this is just another undercard in the Rocky series. After a somewhat predictable start, Ryan Coogler digs in to deliver what is undeniably a hit to the heart: the most emotionally satisfying crescendo of the year.

The youthful team from the acclaimed Fruitvale Station takes on not just the legend but also many of the key players who created it, echoing, in a way, the generational plotline of the script. Both on screen and behind it, veterans team up with the cooler kids and, once they begin to really trust one another, create a pretty beautiful thing. In Coogler’s story (and script, co-written by Aaron Covington), we meet Adonis, the illegitimate child of Apollo Creed. Rescued by Creed’s widow (a lovely Phylicia Rashad), Apollo appreciates his luck, but cannot deny his attraction for and talent in the ring. Taking off for Philadelphia, he adopts a new name and tries to woo Rocky Balboa into coaching him.

Quite a bit of time is spent as Adonis falls in love (nice turn by Tessa Thompson) and revs up for his first big arena fight. Coogler keeps the story rolling along at a nice clip, even if we all know we’re just waiting for the real action to start. And, once the team leaves the locker room and enters the corridor to the ring, the movie seems to find its true strength. Not just tapping the familiar anymore, Coogler brings his own, gorgeous filmmaking talent to the forefront. We, the audience, sit up in our chairs as the almost wordless walk begins. By the end of the fight we all knew was coming, our pulses are racing. By the end of the movie, we are maybe even shedding a tear or two, too.

Slipping back into the role he knows so well, Sylvester Stallone gives a wonderfully touching performance, his best in years. But Michael B. Jordan matches him, scene for scene, with a terrific performance that is sure to make him a star. 

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