Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Movie Review: Creed

Directed by: Ryan Coogler.
Written by: Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington based on characters created by Sylvester Stallone.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Andre Ward (Danny 'Stuntman' Wheeler), Tony Bellew ('Pretty' Ricky Conlan), Ritchie Coster (Pete Sporino), Jacob 'Stitch' Duran (Stitch), Graham McTavish (Tommy Holiday), Malik Bazille (Amir), Ricardo McGill (Padman).

It cannot be easy making another movie in a beloved franchise, that wants to honor what came before, while also making the movie its own thing. Great movies, like Skyfall, can do this – that film paid tribute to what happened in the Bond series before, but wasn’t a slave to it. Mediocre movies like Spectre fail to do it – becoming so devoted to what came before, that it’s practically meaningless to those who do not already know the entire story before showing up. Had you asked me before to place a bet on what Creed would be – I would have said it would have been more Spectre than Skyfall – after all, the Rocky movies have pretty much become parodies of themselves since at least the third installment – enjoyable as they may be. And I would have been wrong. Creed is the best movie in the Rocky series since the original – a film that certainly acknowledges what has become before, without becoming a slave to it.

The film reteams the director and star of Fruitvale Station – Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson – the illegitimate son of Rocky’s best friend/arch rival Apollo Creed. He has led a tough life – being raised by a single mother who died, and then in and out of juvie and foster care until he is taken in by Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) – who wants him to be anything except a boxer. But Adonis is a natural – and has to be, since no one will train him. He ends up leaving L.A. and heading to Philly – where he looks up a sad sack Rocky Balboa (Stallone) – who seems to simply be waiting for death, who reluctantly agrees to become Adonis’ trainer. He also meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson) – and falls in love. Adonis doesn’t want to trade on his famous father’s name and reputation to make it boxing – but of course you cannot keep that a secret for long – and when it comes out, the news is huge.

Fruitvale Station was a small film – the portrait of a young black man on the last day of his life before he was killed by police. That Coogler is able to move so effortlessly from the indie world to the Hollywood world, and retain his voice is impressive. The film is brilliantly directed – including a dazzling one shot set piece of a fight sequence that is among the best boxing scenes ever filmed. The final fight is equally brilliant – an extended, bloody and brutal fight that doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the sport, but also captures its beauty. The boxing scenes alone would make Creed worth watching.

But Creed is far more than that. Jordan gives a wonderful, charismatic performance as Adonis – a young, black man struggling with his complicated legacy left to him by a father he never knew. His relationship with Tessa Thompsons Bianca is sweet and heartfelt – recalling the relationship between Rocky and Adrian, but also distinctly its own thing. Best of all is Stallone himself as Rocky. Doing his best work since the original Rocky, Stallone is finally, smartly playing his age here – and the weight of everything that has come before is evident on his face. Stallone has some big scenes here – scenes that may well get him into the Oscar race – but he’s at his best in the quieter scenes – like a heartfelt one where he visits the graves of Paulie and Adrian to read the paper. Stallone does so little in that scene, but it’s brilliant. It’s easy to forget that Stallone earned comparisons to Brando for the original Rocky – and while he hasn’t often flexed those muscles in the decades since, they are still there.
In short, Creed is mainstream Hollywood entertainment done right – its entertaining in all the right ways, works for fans of the Rocky series, and also functions as its own movie. It’s heartfelt and exciting in equal doses – and never really steps wrong. It’s not easy to do this – despite how simple everyone involved in Creed makes it seem. The Rocky series has been a joke – albeit an entertaining one – for decades now. Creed brings it back to its roots – and does so wonderfully.

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