Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Creed" (2015)

Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone and Tessa Thompson
Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Rated PG-13 — Violence, language, sex
Running Time: 133 Minutes

Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of the late boxing champ Apollo Creed. He lives in Creed's old home with Creed's wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rishad), and he even burns inside to be a boxer. But he rejects the Creed name, wanting instead to make a name for himself.

After losing a bout at his father's old gym because of his arrogance and hot temper, Donnie quits his job in finance and, against Mary Anne's wishes, moves to Philadelphia. There he tracks down Apollo's old rival, friend and trainer: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). He asks Rocky to train him to be a boxer, and Rocky reluctantly accepts.

At the same time, the current champion of the world "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is looking for one last fight before he faces a prison charge for gun possession in the UK. When his manager hears that Johnson is actually the son of the legendary Apollo Creed, he sees a way for his man to go out on top. With little experience under his belt, and Rocky facing his own problems, Donnie struggles to embrace the legacy of his father while figuring out his own place in the world.

What's in a name?

It's pretty rare for a franchise to reach its seventh entry, even more so when that seventh film comes a full four decades after the original. But with "Creed," both a sequel and spinoff to "Rocky," that's exactly what's happened. Forty years after we were introduced to the Italian Stallion, we're back with a film that's fresh and vital and yet somehow still entirely steeped in the history of the franchise.

The ghost of Apollo Creed looms large over this film in many ways, understandably, though Carl Weathers only appears in extremely brief archival footage. Instead, Donnie is desperate to separate himself from the Creed name, struggling with his sense of self due to all of his anger about his father and that legacy even though it's given him so much — including a surrogate mother whom he loves, a massive home, a nice car, etc.

What really cuts at Donnie is the idea that he might be a mistake. Michael B. Jordan plays that resentment and confusion well. More and more, people tell him he's his father's son, and he's torn between being revolted by that concept and embracing it as a manner of finding some peace for himself. He desperately wants to make his own way without using the Creed name to get ahead, but at every turn finds that it's the prism through with others will always view him.

It's eventually his relationship with "Uncle" Rocky that helps him realize that even with the Creed name and all it's given him, he can chart his own path. Rocky takes a back seat in this film, taking up the trainer role from Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and Apollo himself in earlier films. But that's not to mean that Rocky doesn't have his won arc in "Creed."

The film begins with Rocky having settled into his retirement, but not in a particularly good way. Rocky's basically given up. With the passing of his friend Paulie, he's got no one left in his life except a son he rarely speaks to. So "when something breaks, I ain't gonna fix it," he says. But Rocky comes back to life when he begins to form a real relationship with Donnie, and in each other they both find something to work for and live for.

The temptation in making a more modern, harder-edged version of "Rocky" would be to make Rocky himself darker and grittier. But while Rocky's late-life depression and health problems are a sad route for the character, Rocky himself is actually quite recognizable as the lovable Philly boxer we all love. He's the same simple, good-natured dude he's always been, which lends the film a positivity that these films have always thrived upon even when it dips into its saddest, lowest points.

I have to give props to Stallone himself. The man is definitely smarter than most people give him credit for, but an honest-to-god great acting performance from him is pretty damn rare. Rocky Balboa is obviously one of his most famous, beloved and revered creations, and rightfully so. While the previous film, "Rocky Balboa," seemed to exist mostly to trade on sheer nostalgia, "Creed" is, like its main character, more concerned with respecting that past while making its own name for itself. It's not content to let us feel things for Rocky simply because he's Rocky and we're expected to after six previous movies.

And Sylvester Stallone is on board with that, giving one of his better performances. Some of his scenes in the latter half of the film are quite effective — especially a scene where he lays bare his current, depressed philosophy to Donnie. 

The last part of the casting triangle is Tessa Thompson as Bianca, Donnie's neighbor who is a singer at the beginning of a promising career. They quickly begin to fall for each other, and some effort is made to make Bianca an important part of Donnie's life, but her own agency wavers in and out. Early on, we learn that she has degenerative hearing loss, and that even though she has the voice to be a great singer, she'll eventually go deaf and that would mean the end of any musical career. But in the second half of this film, that's a detail that stops really mattering at all and she mostly just becomes Donnie's girlfriend. But Thompson gives a fine performance, and I think she's come a long way since playing one of the more annoying recurring characters on "Veronica Mars."

On a technical level, co-writer/director Ryan Coogler has made a confident, bristling film that even though it embraces so many of the familiar tropes and images of the "Rocky" franchise never feels tired or forced. More often than not, he instead uses those images to help set "Creed" apart. Donnie at first decides to train at Mickey's gym, but Rocky decides that's not what he needs, and so they move to a different gym in a harsher part of Philly. When the inevitable training montage comes up, Donnie's wearing the familiar gray sweatsuit but his circumstances are entirely different. Even the famous Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its iconic steps serve different narrative and emotional ideas.

Of course, without good boxing, what's a "Rocky" film? (The glib answer to that question is, of course, "Rocky V," but I digress). And Coogler stages some mightily impressive sequences. Donnie's first fight is a marvel, the entirety of it in one long take that moves in and around the ring and the fighters. It's absolutely a stunning sequence. A deft mixture of cinematography, choreography, editing and sound design give the boxing sequences serious heft. Each lightning-fast punch, dodge and combo hit with incredible oomph. At one point in the climactic fight, Conlan slugs Donnie with a vicious right that hit the audience in our theater like a ton of bricks, eliciting audible gasps in response.

"Creed" brings respectability back to the "Rocky" franchise. With fine performances, solid scripting and crackling technical production, it's a fantastic revitalization of a storied franchise. Whether it leads to further sequels following Donnie Creed is anyone's guess, but taken on its own and as a rare seventh entry in a franchise, it's a winner.

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