Thursday, December 3, 2015

Creed (***)

Directed by Ryan Coogler


The Rocky series is one of the few film franchises that I truly love. The original film is one of the great American classics, mostly because its screenplay (written by its star, Sylvester Stallone) is a masterpiece in commercial cinematic storytelling. The thought of a spin-off within a movie climate already over-saturated with reboots and unwanted sequels was a bit unnerving to me. How much more story can be sapped from this character? Six films stretched Stallone thin, and the sequels succeeded mostly when they became something between shameless self-parody and outright camp (see: Rocky IV). Upon its announcement, Creed had the scent of self-importance, an attempt to start anew with a rough, grittier style - like they've done with Batman and James Bond and I'm sure plenty of other franchises in the future. But much like the original Rocky, Creed has the benefit of a strong screenplay. It's a real story, not a centerpiece for staged boxing nor a cheap attempt to capitalize on the great films of the past. It helps that Creed was actually the brainchild of its director, Fruitvale Station's Ryan Coogler, who used the goodwill he built up with Fruitvale's success and graduated to this major studio film. Creed's concept and story was created by Coogler, and he wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington. That personal touch is evident in the film's emotional style. Reuniting with Fruitvale's star, Michael B. Jordan, both director and actor prove that their place in Hollywood is legitimate, but with the help of a Hollywood relic, Rocky himself Sylvester Stallone, they deliver a crowd-pleasing dynamo that would do the rest of the franchise proud.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) is the illegitimate son of former Heavyweight champion/Rocky frienemy Apollo Creed (immortalized in the first four films by Carl Weathers, but limited only to stock footage by the time this film comes around). Apollo's death in the boxing ring is the tragedy that kicks off Rocky IV, but it is also the inciting incident for his son Adonis' story. Apollo died before Adonis was even born, and as a young child, he passed through several foster homes before landing in juvenile detention in 1998. Adonis likes to fight, and its this penchant for altercation that lands him in so much trouble. It isn't until he's found and adopted by Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo's widow, that he finds the straight path. He grows up in a lush home in Southern California, equipped for all his needs, but as he grows into adulthood, the prospects of a desk job with a suit and tie doesn't fulfill him. He finds himself taking weekend trips to Mexico where he's allowed to participate in professional boxing matches; and he does pretty well down there, 16-0. But his spirit still feels confined when he returns home. He makes a brash decision: he's moving to Philadelphia with nothing but his clothes and determination to begin a career as a professional fighter. In Philly, he stops by an Italian restaurant hoping to find a family friend who might assist him as a fighter: Rocky Balboa (Stallone), the city's most beloved fighter, and the first man ever to defeat Apollo Creed in the ring. Rocky is hesitant to Adonis' (or Donnie's) approach, has little interest in getting back into the business, and even less interest in returning to the legendary Mighty Mick's gym, where Donnie is currently working out.

Donnie trains on his own for a while, before Rocky finally comes around, arriving in Mick's to the astonishment of the staff. The gym's current owner, Sporino (Ritchie Coster), would love Rocky to lend a hand in training his son, an up-and-comer rising in the ranks, but instead Rocky begins training with the nobody that everyone in the gym has christened "Hollywood". Having lived with his mother's last name since his birth, Donnie has no interest in adopting the Creed name. Rocky agrees that keeping the name a secret is a good idea, and gives Donnie a chance to make a name on his own, but the two of them know how difficult that secret will be to keep, especially considering the presence of Rocky in his corner. Surely enough, after Donnie's first fight in America, against Sporino's son, the news leaks out of Donnie's heritage. The publicity catches the eye of Heavyweight champ, 'Pretty' Ricky Conlon (Tony Bellew) and his manager, who'd like to set up one final bout before Conlon must serve a seven-year prison sentence. Without an opponent (Conlon broke the scheduled opponent's jaw in a weigh-in skirmish), Conlon must scramble to find a fighter in what will likely be the final fight of his career. Rocky doesn't like the sound of it, he knows that Conlon is only interested in the inexperienced Donnie because its a sure thing, but Donnie is biting at the opportunity. Who better to appreciate a serendipitous chance at the title than the Italian Stallion himself? The rest doesn't need to be said: With Rocky by his side, Donnie trains vigorously for the fight against Conlon, learning that most of the hurdles he must surpass are of his own making.

This is the first of the Rocky films to be written by someone other than Stallone. As an actor, Stallone has never seemed to have too interested in projects that he didn't have most of the control. Even the mindless Expendables films have his stamp as a writer/director. The trust that Stallone puts in Coogler is important, since it's hard to remember a time when the action star has ever been more vulnerable as an actor. The film's script contrives to give Rocky Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma about halfway through, but the way Stallone handles receiving the news is actually one of the most amazing parts of the film. I'm quite over film and television using cancer as a storytelling device, but Stallone plays the notes perfectly - I can't imagine that there's a character in which Stallone feels more comfortable than Barboa, and yet in Creed he chooses to go outside of his comfort zone. Creed's Rocky Balboa is a limping, grieving man, far different from the motormouth meathead in the original classic. If Rocky seems a lot smarter than he did in 1976, that's only because he's aged forty years. Life has given him experience and intelligence but it has also trampled his spirit and broken his heart. All of his friends and lovers are relics of the past, and his best years as a fighter are behind him. Stallone, himself, doesn't seem as downtrodden as Rocky is in the early moments of this film, but the mirroring of mortality feels prescient. Stallone's best years are also behind him, but it's great to see the former movie star bring it back for one great performance. His work here is more impressive than anything Rocky accomplishes in 2006's Rocky Balboa.

The way Coogler handles this story is impressive. He understands the rhythms of what made Rocky great: a populist, crowd-pleasing story that never panders to the audience's more base interests. The film is directed with purpose, and while boxing may be the sport that cinema loves the most, there are few boxing films that are made with as sophisticated knowledge as Creed. The movie probably has too much participation from the media personalities within ESPN and HBO Sports (Hello Max Kellerman! Howdy Tony Kornheiser!), but those personalities are the realities of a contemporary sports fan. Watching sports in the digital age is interesting because there are now so many platforms, and we only need so many. Creed allows that sports media culture to seep into the story. This film is a bit sturdier narratively than Fruitvale Station, and it gives the director a few chances here and there to show off. One of the movie's early fights is filmed in entirely one shot (Coogan and Jordan have both been consistent in saying that there are no hidden cuts), but the shot doesn't have the whirling Birdman quality to it. The shot is impressive not because what it says about Coogler's command of the camera (with DP Maryse Alberti) but how it composes Donnie and his opponent throughout. The fight is fierce and contentious, each corner has its own narrative which is displayed so fluidly without unnecessary exposition. Coogler's true style is still yet to be found, I think. He has a tendency to lean toward the bombastic when subtlety would do, but Creed shows his has gifts as a formalist.

Fruitvale Station is a good debut for any filmmaker, but that film's greatest strength was the performance from Michael B. Jordan. The young actor was already a veteran in television, known for The Wire and Friday Night Lights (both of which, I must admit, I haven't seen). Jordan's portrayal of Oscar Grant in that film is a brilliant piece of acting, a performance so in touch with both the character and the tone of the film; the only catch is that it wasn't in a more polished story. I'm excited at the prospects of Coogler and Jordan finding themselves as artists together, but Jordan is the one who has the true chance of becoming a star. Creed allows the twenty-eight year-old actor to be charismatic, romantic. A major subplot of the film involves Donnie's relationship with a singer/musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson, in a thankless but strong performance). The relationship is a bit of a crutch for the script, which uses it mostly to manufacture several conflicts, but Jordan and Thompson have a real chemistry that ignites their scenes. It's Jordan's performance, alongside Stallone, that allows Creed to overcome its more middle-brow tendencies. Whether Jordan can be a real movie star is yet to be seen. He's not a severe as Denzel Washington, and not as willing to mute the racial aspects of his characters as Will Smith. Whether or not Jordan can carry blockbusters feels a bit irrelevant to me, to be honest, because it's clear that he's a superior actor. The announcement of him tackling the adaptation of Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy with director Destin Cretton (Short Term 12) is enough to stir excitement.

Even the original Rocky is imperfect, and deals more in good feelings than good filmmaking (the idea of it beating Taxi Driver, All The President's Men and Network to win Best Picture is enough to cause vertigo), but the way Creed straddles the line between homage and individuality is impressive. The nods toward the franchise's past are understated, and the use of Bill Conti's much-beloved score is used so intelligently and so sparsely, that you're actually rooting for it to come on. This is the kind of mid-budget film that Hollywood used to give us more of, a film that knows the importance of good writing but more importantly knows that it helps to treat the audience with astute conscience. Like all good sports movies, it takes the action and contextualizes it - the sport itself is just a metaphor, which is why boxing has always been perfect for the movies. Earlier this year, we also got Jake Gyllenhaal's Southpaw, which goes to show that even though the sport of boxing has had a precipitous decline in popularity, boxing movies seem to still be very much in demand. I'm not sure they gave Creed a Thanksgiving weekend open with the idea of it being an awards contender, but I can see this film heading that way. It's empowering, it stirs up the audience, and probably most importantly, it will make men weep. Oscars or not, this is a perfect example of how to refresh a franchise, how to take a known entity and build upon it. Creed stands alone, but it also stands along with some very impressive company.

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