“Creed” movie review: Michael B. Jordan relaunches “Rocky” franchise

26 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A feast of films on Thanksgiving Eve.

The best “Rocky” film since the original, “Creed” tells the story of Adonis Creed (Michael B. PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — ‘Creed,’ the 7th installment in the iconic franchise of ‘Rocky,’ films is set to hit the big screen on Wednesday, nationwide.Nine years after we thought Sylvester Stallone wrapped up his durable franchise on a high note with “Rocky Balboa,” he’s back to pass the torch in style with Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” one of the year’s warmest and most crowd-pleasing surprises.

There’s a majestic, bitter irony to “Creed,” Ryan Coogler’s stirring, heartfelt, tough-minded, and insightful reboot of the “Rocky” franchise.“I was definitely a fan, but obviously didn’t have the opportunity see a lot of the movies in the theater,” says Jordan in Miami Beach on a press tour for Creed, the seventh and seemingly final notch in Rocky’s belt. “I was able to kind of re-fall in love with all the characters.” In the film, Jordan stars as Adonis Johnson Creed, the illegitimate son of world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who died at the hands of Russian beast Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in 1985’s Rocky IV. Jordan), an unacknowledged son of Apollo Creed, and his struggle to follow in his father’s footsteps as a prizefighter with the help of his father’s greatest opponent and friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). It seems that before Rocky’s opponent-turned-pal Apollo Creed died in “Rocky 4,” he planted the seed for this spinoff during an extramarital affair.

Donnie angrily moved through foster care, group homes and juvie before being rescued by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), who is alarmed and dismayed by the adult Donnie’s plans to fight full time. To prepare, the Fantastic Four star re-watched all the Rocky movies, to fully understand the depth of the tough-as-nails underdog boxer from Philadelphia (Sylvester Stallone). “To step into this world, yeah, it was intimidating,” Jordan admits. “Everyone knows Rocky. But even though it doesn’t have the same ring, Atlas might have been more appropriate, because this young man believes he carries the weight of the entire world on his shoulders.

It’s as much of a political film as is Coogler’s other feature, the independently produced drama “Fruitvale Station.” And—as is entirely normal for a young filmmaker (amazingly, Coogler is only twenty-nine)—“Creed,” despite the studio standards and norms that it meets, is an even more accomplished, wide-ranging, and analytical film than his remarkable début. They went for the underdog-rooting, for Rocky and Adrian, for the unexpected sweetness, for the redemption angle, for the reconstituted boxing movie cliches that tasted not new, but new-ish. That angle was pitched to Stallone by the film’s writer/director Ryan Coogler. “There’s so many children out there that don’t have that structure, that family environment. Ingeniously, Coogler has transformed “Rocky”—the modern cinematic myth that, perhaps more than any other, endures as a modern capitalist Horatio Alger story of personal determination and sheer will—into a vision of community and opportunity, connections and social capital, family and money.

It’s one of those things you don’t want to mess up.” Jordan already had some experience with being the newbie: In 2009, the California native was cast in television’s football drama Friday Night Lights. Adonis was orphaned and raised in group homes before Apollo’s compassionate widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) took him into her home when he was a preteen. “Creed” was co-written by director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) and Aaron Covington, based on an idea by Coogler and on characters created by Stallone, whose “Rocky” screenplay was nominated for a 1976 Academy Award (as was his lead performance).

He first suggests some drills to Donnie — who baffles the senior citizen by taking a photo of the instruction sheet with his phone and assuring Rocky it’s stored in the cloud — and invites the young man to move into a spare bedroom. I think we all have friends that are like family and those are the people you lean on to get through obstacles, that get you through the hard times,” Jordan said.

Finally he quits and heads to Philadelphia and the only man in the world who can help him figure out whether he can live up to the achievements of the father he’s never known. It begins in a modern-day Hell, a juvenile-detention center in Los Angeles that’s run with the terrorizing martial authority of a prison, and focusses on a modern victim of that broken system—young Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson), an orphaned teen-ager in the center, who’s involved in a bloody and harrowing fistfight with another, bigger inmate.

He appeared in seasons four and five, before the show ended in 2011. “[The show] was already a well-oiled machine,” Jordan says. “So I kind of felt that same anxious nervousness walking on set on Creed like I did back then.” Jordan got an able assist from working with actual professional fighters, including his costar and on-screen opponent, English heavyweight champion Tony Bellew, who makes his big-screen debut. “Having people in the industry gave this film the authenticity,” says Jordan, who gained 24 pounds of muscle over the course of the shoot. “They wouldn’t give me a pass. After quitting a promising career in finance and winning several secret fights in Tijuana, Adonis, also known as “Donny,” quits Los Angeles and heads for Philadelphia, where he goes to Adrian’s restaurant, where the film connects to “Rocky Balboa” (2006), to ask Rocky to be his coach in scenes recalling Rocky’s encounters with the crusty Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) in the original film. After Donnie falls for a singer, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who faces some challenges of her own, he is invited to bring his boxing skills to the world stage. It comes as no surprise that Rocky has thrown in the gloves after the deaths of Adrian and Paulie, and manages Adrian’s restaurant as quietly as he can, even if he is the most famous celebrity in the city.

Badly beaten but still game, Adonis ends up in solitary, and in a way the movie is over before it starts: the terrifying future at hand is a life of confrontation with monstrously hostile or indifferent authority, a violent struggle to survive while bearing the stigmata of social exclusion. With the rest of the “Rockys,” the ones concerned with ego and celebrity and increasingly contrived suffering, once was enough, although No. 6, “Rocky Balboa” in 2006, wasn’t bad. Her character is a young music-maker on the Philadelphia scene and she channeled a local songstress as she prepared for her role. “I’m so happy that you mentioned Jill Scott,” Thompson told Washington during her sitdown with CBS 3. “She was someone I looked to when trying to figure out my voice and tone, and luckily Philly has such a rich music history that there were so many resources.” This creates the father-son bond he never had, offers plenty of homages to the earlier films, and makes for more than one eye-of-the-tiger-like montage. This results in a training montage that demonstrates writer-director Coogler (of the indie sensation “Fruitvale Station”) not only respects but totally gets what made the original underdog classic win the Best Picture Oscar in 1977.

Working with a gifted director and the first “Rocky” script that he does not have a credited hand in, Stallone responds with one of his most careful and nuanced performances in years as he becomes heavily involved in his new protégé’s life. It relies on warm affection for Rocky, admiration for a sinewy, skilled Jordan, the father-son relationship they develop and rousing lessons about mustering the courage to fight, even when the opponent seems unbeatable. That life includes a terrific Tessa Thompson as Bianca, a feisty and supportive musician who is losing her hearing and has no time for Adonis’ bouts of self-pity. This is a boy and his dog story but an animated Apatosaurus named Arlo is the former, and a child, who walks on all fours, howls and expresses emotions like a spirited pup, the latter.

There’s something to be said for the underdog who gets a shot and takes it, eventually pulling his bruised and battered body up from the canvas through sheer force of will, determined to take another swing at a bigger, faster opponent. There is, in fact, more filmmaking savvy in co-writer and director Ryan Coogler’s prowling opening shot, introducing us to young Adonis Johnson in a 1998 L.A. prologue, than there was in all of the ’76 original.

It’s his Apollo connection that gets the unranked Adonis a shot at a title bout — British lightweight champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew, a screen natural) needs a high-profile match to provide for his family before being sent to prison on a gun charge. Jordan), he has a promising job at a bank, where he has just received a promotion—but his passion is boxing, which he pursues as an independent in a minor circuit in Tijuana, where he’s undefeated. Having him approve of my performance was the biggest confidence boost.” Another boost to Jordan’s confidence came from teaming up again with Ryan Coogler, Jordan’s director in the critically acclaimed, tragic biopic Fruitvale Station. “We have security in our chemistry and our friendship,” Jordan says of Coogler, who told Ebony he took on Creed because his own father followed Rocky religiously. “I’m starting to learn that the stronger the relationship you have with your director, the easier it is on set.” The Creed set, though, didn’t sound easy at all.

He’s not reinventing the “Rocky” wheel with “Creed,” but he is re-envisioning it, dragging Rocky into the modern age but still letting him be a part of the past. Yes, Jordan is proud of the accomplishment, but he certainly sounds relieved that the crushing workouts are in the rear-view mirror. “Though I took real punches, it was more about soreness and recovery,” he says. “After the main fight scene I was bedridden for two weeks.

Like “Rocky,” “Creed” is not as phony or blustery as the recent effort “Southpaw,” and it does not make the mistake of making his opponent a villain. Stallone and Jordan (who was in “Fruitvale Station” and the unfortunate “Fantastic Four” reboot) have great chemistry together as their characters each urge the other not to give up.

Arlo must confront his fears if he’s to survive, let alone make his mark and return to his mother and siblings. “The Good Dinosaur” has beautifully detailed, majestic landscapes, a touching scene explaining the loss of parents with bits of driftwood and other wordless representations of friendship. Even as someone who was never a huge fan of the series, I found myself misting up at the final scene in “Creed” that, in less sure hands, would have been unbearably schmaltzy. The reason the “Rocky” movies resonated so well was Rocky was an emotionally open book, an everyman plucked from obscurity and given a chance, not just at the title, but at love.

I have a new respect for fighters.” “It’s not cheesy or forced,” he promises. “Sometimes sequels are pumped out just to make money, but this is legit. Hopefully, the new iteration of “Star Wars” (which bowed a year after the “Rocky” saga) will be able to deliver a knockout punch like this for its seventh outing in December. You may think it skews young, and in some ways it does, but its artistry and heartfelt examination of family, friends and (confronting) fears give it universal appeal.

Jordan invests Adonis with exactly the volatile mix that Coogler conceived—raw pugnacity, the endurance of punishment, the discipline forged and graces mastered through education and his several jobs (both in the ring and at the desk). Of course it’s fairly predictable, and yes, even a bit formulaic, and sure, even corny at times, but it also has a vitality that’s reminiscent of the early “Rocky” films. A scene in which Rocky accompanies Creed to the ring, his hand firmly perched on the young man’s shoulder, may make you tear up. “Creed” is the real thing.

The first of three training montages kicks in, as does Adonis’ romance with the musician downstairs, Bianca (Tessa Thompson, from “Dear White People” and a huge asset here). He’s Socratically aware of what he doesn’t know, and his quest—to become a professional through submission to the stern tutelage of an experienced teacher—drives the film.

And you, too, hiding in the corner!” As directed by Paul McGuigan, this is Mary Shelley as bromance, with Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) a brilliant hunchbacked man enslaved and abused as a circus clown. Rocky faces a life-threatening health crisis; Adonis faces a vicious Brit (played by ABA heavyweight champ Anthony Bellew) in a Liverpool title match. Designed, edited and choreographed as one gorgeous, intense, bloody take, it is the sort of filmmaking that should usher Coogler from scrappy underdog to a title contender. Victor rescues and creates Igor, naming him, fixing the hump on his back and helping him to literally and figuratively stand upright for the first time.

But you never know; quality sometimes wins out, although it’s Stallone’s aging Rocky who at one point in “Creed” notes: “Time takes everybody out. He’s a widower who owns a small restaurant—Adrian’s, named after his late wife—and he no longer has anything to do with the world of boxing, where he gained his life and then virtually lost it. Time’s undefeated.” That’s a pretty sticky line, but the way Stallone says it, under his breath, the corn works; it feels like a moment overheard, not a thesis line hammered. He’s alive but his soul is among the dead; he seems to have a foot poised over the open grave, and Stallone brings a terse, astral distractedness to the role, a wry wisdom born of pain and a detachment born of masked grief. Adonis, of course, is his call back to life (“If I fight, you fight”), and in the process he also calls the older man back to his past—to his memories as well as to his connections, to his departed loved ones as well as to friends in the sport, from whom he had long cut himself off.

When Adonis, after a rough time of hard training under Rocky’s tutelage, enters the ring for his first big-time bout, Coogler captures the moment in exactly such a bravura take, which follows the fledgling fighter from the dressing room through the crowd into the ring, into his corner, toward the center of the ring to hear the referee’s instructions and to touch gloves with his opponent, and then to face the music for the entire duration of the first round. Ostracized and unemployable, he cranked out schlocky B-picture scripts to support his family and wrote the Oscar-winning “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One” although behind a front or under a pseudonym. Bryan Cranston leads the cast as the larger-than-life Trumbo, a mustachioed man with a cultivated style of speaking and habit of smoking and writing in the bathtub, typing with two fingers on a typewriter balanced on a wooden tray. It ticks all the right boxes about how Congress had no right to investigate how Americans “vote, think or pray,” as Trumbo says, but it feels heavy-handed — as with a composite screenwriter (Louis C.K.) or comically over-the-top producer (John Goodman).

Thompson lends Bianca a grounded yet febrile energy; the actress is persuasive as an independent-minded artist (and Coogler writes the part with the rare trait of inventive whimsy and sudden inspiration sufficient to persuade a viewer of the artistic originality of her temperament). She is pitch perfect as Eilis Lacey, a young unmarried woman from tiny Enniscorthy, Ireland, who is “away to America” shortly after the movie opens. I won’t spoil the story to say what happens, but Coogler makes a clear and harsh point about the difference. “Creed” begins with a cry for justice, for a society that would rescue every young Adonis from isolation, poverty, and brutality in order to foster their strength and cultivate their incipient spark of genius and originality. Her shipboard passage, job, visa and even the few clothes in her suitcase mainly come courtesy of her older sister and a kindly priest (he is the 1950s antidote to the child predators in “Spotlight”).

It’s a movie about an exceptional young man who has the benefit of an exceptional past and turns it into an exceptional future—and it evokes the young people who are condemned to ordinary neglect, ordinary racism, ordinary incarceration, and who are all the more extraordinary in the force of their endurance. Coogler’s preternaturally mature sense of vast experience gained rapidly at almost unbearable cost is both the artistic power that he brings to the movie and its very subject.

The promise and delight of this new world open when she meets an Italian-American plumber, but when a tragedy pulls her back to Ireland, she sees what a parallel life could hold. Much obviously has changed in the past half-century, but “Brooklyn” is emblematic of the often lonely immigrant experience, a coming-of-age tale in the truest sense, and a story about being a stranger in a new land, and then an old one, and deciding where home, hope and the heart reside.

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