“Creed” director Ryan Coogler: New “Rocky movie is love letter to dad

25 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Creed’ review: Sylvester Stallone scores a KO in Rocky’s last stand.

In an upset victory, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler brings something new to the ‘Rocky’ franchise. Sylvester Stallone knows most of Rocky Balboa’s famous fights would have been stopped by a real-life referee long before the battered and bloodied fictional heavyweight champion rallies his will to win.

Ryan Coogler’s rollicking reboot of the Rocky series, Creed, stars Michael B Jordan as Adonis Johnson, the son of heavyweight boxer Apollo Creed (former arch-nemesis of Rocky Balboa). Sylvester Stallone also realizes many people who only know boxing from his ”Rocky” saga might believe his beloved sport really looks like a Rocky movie all the time. Coming 39 years after the original film starring Sylvester Stallone, the movie certainly has its share of training montages and struggles against adversity, as well as an endearing romance between a young fighter and a woman from the neighborhood. While the 1976 original won three Oscars, including Best Picture, its follow-ups only got progressively more ridiculous. (At one point there was a robot butler.

This is the era before creator and star Sylvester Stallone TKOed his own franchise with the ridiculous Rocky IV and Rocky V (although he did try to right some of his own wrongs with the personalized 2006 drama, Rocky Balboa). Adonis, a child from an extra-marital affair, never met his father – in fact, he came into the world shortly after Apollo was squarely walloped through the pearly gates by Soviet propaganda pugilist Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV. That’s why Stallone has always insisted that the ”Rocky” films acknowledge the heavy cost of boxing, even amid the cathartic ring victories that have turned the character into an icon. Having been rescued from juvenile detention by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis grows up to be a complex character: a well-paid, white collar LA drone by day, and a hardcore slugger on Mexico’s illegal boxing circuit by night.

The ”Rocky” series continues this week with the release of ”Creed,” writer-director Ryan Coogler’s reimagining of Rocky as a reluctant trainer for his oldest rival’s son, Adonis Creed. Audiences will still likely see every punch coming from a mile away, but what’s remarkable is how the movie lands them all: It’s an invigorating piece of nostalgia that fuels a bigger adrenaline rush with its climax than any big-budget blockbuster could provide. There is natural character development here, along with a fresh, thoughtful, youthful story that positions Balboa as a ragged lion in the winter of his life.

Coogler and Stallone maintained the Rocky series’ delicate balance between depictions of hyper-stylized, brutal fighting and that acknowledgement of the dangers and damage inherent in boxing. ”I have this conversation with my wife,” Stallone said. ”(She’ll say) `This is so brutal. T, conquer the Soviet Union, and own a talking robot, the first movie is a touching character study of a mumbling, distant, sweet-natured guy who gets an unprecedented shot at fame. The director wisely refrains from reinventing the wheel, instead harnessing the earthy qualities that made the franchise’s first films so successful. He uses Stallone’s most famous character and the audience’s relationship with him to full advantage in the new film, while allowing Rocky to go back to being what he was at the beginning: A hard-working lump willing to sacrifice enough to get what he wants.

The 29-year-old Coogler helped to persuade the now 69-year-old Stallone to reprise his most iconic role one last time — and to serve as a co-producer. Here, Jordan plays Adonis Johnson Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the former heavyweight champion of the world who was killed in the ring back in Rocky IV. Granted, Hollywood has given us prestige documentaries like classic When We Were Kings (1996), about the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman; and biopics of black boxers in the form of Norman Jewison’s moving The Hurricane (1999), about the wrongfully imprisoned Rubin Carter, and Michael Mann’s stately, if slightly stodgy Ali (2001).

But even though black boxers dominated the sport for a significant chunk of the 20th century – black fighters held an almost total stranglehold on the heavyweight title, with a handful of exceptions, from Joe Louis in the 1930s to the Klitschko era of the last decade – the statistics have not been reflected in cinematic representation. He’s an angry kid who fights because he feels like he has to, who isn’t above chasing chickens around a yard to get quicker, who gets a shot at the champ by fluke, who finds the love of a strong, independent woman. Boxing scholar Georg Bauer has argued that in US boxing films the protagonist’s ethnic background is less reflective of reality, geared instead toward public wish fulfillment. Coogler shows impressive versatility in his move to a big-name action franchise, but says he kept in mind the humble persona in which Stallone’s sometimes superhuman Rocky was always grounded. ”Something we always talked about is that (Creed) has to earn his way,” Coogler said. ”This dude doesn’t want to be handed something. The wild box office success and public fascination with Rocky Balboa, the consummate underdog, is a great example: when the film was released in 1976, there hadn’t been a white American heavyweight champion since Rocky Marciano in 1956.

Jordan conveys a powerful hunger for validation in Adonis’ quest for glory, simmering with rage at being both abandoned by his dead father and needing to live up to the man’s memory, and he expertly balances that intensity with charm and a disarming sense of humor. Much of the movie is an echo of the original Rocky movie, even though Adonis’ background and upbringing are radically different from the hardscrabble origins of Balboa. Sports Illustrated’s list of 50 Greatest American Boxing Movies includes many undisputed classics (City Lights, Fat City, Raging Bull), but only a paltry two feature fictional black protagonists. Each one has to tell the story of what that fight is, and therefore dictate the style.” Jordan had his own appreciation of Stallone’s view of boxing after a year of training to look like a light heavyweight contender. Coogler juices Creed with some hip hop street culture of present-day Philly: The convoy parade of dirt bikes accompanying Jordan as he trains is both amusing and insightful.

One is The Great White Hope (1970), in which an Oscar-nominated James Earl Jones plays Jack Jefferson, a thinly veiled version of Jack Johnson, who became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion at the height of the Jim Crow era. A visit from Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo’s widow, changes his life in an instant: Soon, he’s living in a mansion in Los Angeles, instead of on the streets or in foster homes.

He filmed with real boxers including Andre Ward, Tony Bellew and Gabriel Rosado, getting hit with his share of accidental punches amid the cinematic choreography. ”Honestly, what these boxers go through mentally and physically, man, it’s ridiculous,” Jordan said. ”As boxers, your hands are wrapped up most of the time. He creates the kind of real-world tough guy Stallone did so well in 1976, tapping into the magnetic star presence he showed in Coogler’s previous film, Fruitvale Station. Described by writer John Ridley as “a guy who basically lived his life with a metaphorical middle finger raised in the air”, Johnson openly dated white women in a time of miscegenation laws, and faced appalling discrimination: he received a year-and-a-day sentence for transporting a minor across state boundaries. The screenplay, which Coogler co-wrote with Aaron Covington (along with uncredited contributions from Stallone), puts Jordan’s Adonis Creed into the ring in Mexico, in Philadelphia and finally in London, where he fights an epic battle with a tough Brit boxer (Tony Bellew), who is both a criminal and a world champion.

He has a lot of promise but he’s self-taught, traveling from his job as a financial consultant to Mexico on the weekends for matches (he’s undefeated). Key support players are played by Tessa Thompson, a musician who becomes Adonis’ Adrian, and Phylicia Rashad, who is the selfless woman who raises Adonis to manhood after he is abandoned and heading into a life of crime. The film’s title comes from the phrase coined by writer Jack London to describe a white fighter who might step up to combat the monstrous black affront to the perceived superiority of the Caucasian race. But Coogler and Jordan nonetheless create a protagonist of color who avoids the stereotypes of many of Hollywood’s black heroes while still being celebrated as one. It’s clear that Coogler loves the franchise — even some of the bad bits — peppering in nods to the previous films wherever he can, be they references to Rocky and Apollo’s third and final fight in Rocky III or that famous training montage.

Damon Wayans plays a flashy, Tyson-esque heavyweight champ, but the real star of the show is a bewigged Samuel J Jackson as shady Don King-a-like Rev Sultan. Scenes where he runs through Philadelphia followed by cheering kids on bikes are especially memorable—they celebrate the film’s myth-making without putting the hero on an unreachable pedestal.

Its plot was inspired by Larry Holmes’s 1982 fight with Gerry Cooney, and Tyson’s 1995 comeback fight against Peter McNeeley; the racial conflict angle of both contests was played to the hilt by media and promoters alike. Notably, it’s the first Rocky film without Stallone’s name on the script, but he shines instead in his quiet, nuanced supporting turn as the aging fighter. And it’s true that “The Master of Disaster”, as essayed by Carl Weathers from Rockies I-IV, was a raffishly charismatic foil to the “Italian Stallion”.

He runs a restaurant and visits the cemetery, plodding along in life while inhabiting a character that is the antithesis of the musclebound meathead of the later “Rocky” films (and “The Expendables”). The unbroken showcase puts the audience in the middle of a boxing match in a way the first six ”Rocky” movies never imagined – which was Coogler’s goal all along with every aspect of ”Creed.” ”The story of that first fight in Philadelphia, which is so important to us, is the idea that Adonis has finally got what he wants,” said Coogler, a receiver at Sacramento State before attending film school at the University of Southern California. ”And when you get what you want all of a sudden in life, it’s cool and it’s scary, because then you’ve got no more excuses.” But Coogler had no desire to entirely abandon the boxing theatricality for which the series is known, particularly in the grand finale expected in any Rocky film. ”It has to build to a crescendo so we earn a final fight that delivers on what people want when they buy a ticket for this movie,” Coogler said. ”It has to deliver on a certain spectacle.” But he ultimately proved dispensable, always played second fiddle, and before he became Rocky’s trainer, was deliberately characterised as an uppity, preening buppie. As a career performance, it doesn’t feel far off from Clint Eastwood’s turn in Million Dollar Baby: After years of playing hard men, both finally get to embrace the youthful energy of their onscreen protégé.

And in sidestepping many of the pitfalls that come with continuing a beloved franchise, the film invites viewers to revel in the old glory days without simply trying to recreate them. Let’s assume you’ve seen an inspirational sports movie, so you can guess what happens at this point without considering it a spoiler: Yes, Rocky goes back into the gym (where he’s still called “Champ” by everyone) and trains Adonis. For another, the score, composed by Fruitvale Station veteran Ludwig Goransson, moves back and forth seamlessly between the original Bill Conti fanfare and present-day hip-hop, interpolating tracks by artists like Future and Meek Mill. Former footballer Fred Williamson chewed up the screen as the eponymous Hammer (1972), a mafia-sponsored pugilist who rises through the ranks and ends up facing a serious moral dilemma.

Meanwhile, Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary series – a gaudy trilogy of prison boxing films – made an underground star of Leon Isaac Kennedy, who in 1981 remade Body and Soul featuring a cameo from Muhammad Ali. So in choosing to pass the torch to Adonis, Coogler allows the characters to look back on both Apollo and Rocky’s legacies and state plainly that while Rocky might have been one of the greats, Apollo was the greatest. This is true for films like Diggstown (1992), a fun con thriller that’s more interested in the shenanigans of a career trickster (James Woods) than it is the ageing boxer at the heart of the scam, played with heart and great physicality by Louis Gossett Jr, sprightly at 56. He saves his explosions for the ring and, more quietly, a final acknowledgement that is both stunning and obvious, but you don’t realize it’s the latter until he has said it.

There’s the shocking opening shot of six black boys, shackled and shepherded through stark juvie halls, which immediately places the film in the real-world context of the disproportionate incarceration rate of African American youth. The film is more notable for its cultural specificity, and keenly observed portrait of modern, young, black American life, which shouldn’t feel as blissfully refreshing as it does in 2015. There’s a beautiful, tender sequence in which Adonis braids his girlfriend Bianca’s hair, while in the most exhilarating sequence (a nod to a similar moment in Rocky II), a group of black kids ride dirt bikes through the street behind Adonis while Lord Knows by Philly rapper Meek Mill judders on the soundtrack. Perhaps most exciting is the pairing of star Jordan and director Coogler – their second consecutive collaboration following the Sundance-award winning Fruitvale Station – which has the makings of a brilliant combination: the putative, African-American answer to Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who took on boxing with Raging Bull.

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