Movie review: ‘Creed’ is a worthy successor to ‘Rocky’

25 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Creed confidently steps into Rocky’s ring: review.

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 sixth 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.In the 1976 film Rocky, the fictional prize fighter Apollo Creed said “there ain’t gonna be no rematch” and then said it again, to which Rocky Balboa replied, “Don’t want one.” So that was that? Jordan plays a 30-year-old in this film, so to not give any major spoilers away, let’s assume he was in utero at the time of his father’s death, OK? To prepare, the Fantastic Four star re-watched all the Rocky movies, getting a grasp of the gravitas in the Oscar-winning classic about a tough-as-nails underdog boxer from Philadelphia (Sylvester Stallone), a film that spawned numerous sequels and more than a few fist-pumping jogs. “To step into this world, yeah, it was intimidating,” Jordan admits. “Everyone knows Rocky.

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. He keeps all the heart of the original in introducing the classic story of an underdog’s quest for glory to a new generation through Adonis Johnson (Fruitvale star Michael B. 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. And of course boxers are infamous for keeping on and coming back. “We always have to be in the middle of the action ’cause we’re the warriors,” Creed would later tell Rocky in Rocky IV. “And without some challenge, without some damn war to fight, then the warrior might as well be dead.” Creed, an Ali-like invention charismatically portrayed by former football player Carl Weathers, died in the ring in Rocky IV.

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. 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.

But Wednesday marks the release of Creed, the seventh in the Sylvester Stallone-spawned series, but the first without “Rocky” in the title, and the first not written by its creator. Here, Rocky takes on the role of the pugilistic seer, a punch-drunk Yoda given to uttering such pearls of wisdom as “One step, one punch,” as he squints at his young protégé. Working from his screenplay, co-written with newcomer Aaron Covington, Coogler wisely keeps the dramatic bones of the 1976, multiple Oscar-winning original, while scenes of Philadelphia street culture, dirt bike riders, a hip-hop soundtrack and even the city’s heralded cheese steaks make Creed feel immediate. And yet Donny, who struggles with his temper — a coping mechanism that helps him deal with the fear of not living up to the name Creed, which he has yet to embrace — is every bit a worthy successor to Rocky. 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. Before he knows it, Donny has been challenged to a match by the light heavyweight world champion (played by professional boxer Tony Bellew, from Liverpool). Defying Mary Anne’s wishes (she has, of course, seen her husband die in the ring), Adonis quits his job and heads to Philadelphia, in the hope of being trained by his father’s nemesis and friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course). 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.

Throughout the movie—foremost, in the tentative first encounters of Adonis and Rocky—scenes that skirt the edge of cliché veer into new light through Coogler’s keen attention to emotional specifics richly endowed with the weight of the past. One of the strengths of his writing and direction—strengths that are greatly reinforced by the performances and the presences of Jordan and Stallone—is the ambivalent force of memory and heritage. 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. From the start of their sentimental yet fraught connection, the director and the actors dramatize the equal likelihood of powerful experiences proving burdensome or energizing, of an enduring pain serving as motivation or as destruction.

There are some viscerally powerful boxing scenes, but ultimately the flesh of “Creed” has almost as much to do with relationships as it does with the sweet science. The red-white-and-blue occasion was worked into the film’s script. (Later, in 1812, the colonies won a rematch against Britain by a controversial split decision.) The mid-seventies were the fighting years of Rocky and the born-to-run Bruce Springsteen, a rock balladeer who sang of highways jammed with broken heroes and last-chance power drives. Both the friendship between Donny and Rocky, whom the young man endearingly calls “Unc,” and the shyly sweet romance that Donny embarks on with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring musician who lives below him, are finely etched. We can see the Italian Stallion’s up-punching fight as the fight of Stallone, a monosyllabic unknown writer-actor up against a major studio that wanted his script but not his acting. Stallone won the battle to star in his film – a “sentimental slum movie,” in the words of a decidedly unmoved Vincent Canby of The New York Times, which won three Academy Awards.

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. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, who worked with Jordan on the excellent “Fruitvale Station,” knows how to get the most out of his star, whose performance in “Creed” is rich and rewarding enough to wash the taste of “Fantastic Four” out of the mouth. An American classic, Rocky featured a colourful ensemble of characters: weird, just-surviving oddballs, including Rocky, a thumb-breaker for the Mob who was too kind-hearted for the job.

The film was dark, with memorable scenes of ugly Thanksgiving dinners and heavy confrontations between Rocky and Burgess Meredith’s gnarled guide Mickey Goldmill. Now-familiar Rocky training montages — yes, Adonis chases a frantic chicken around and there are a few teasing bars of Bill Conti’s Rocky theme song — lead to fights that look close to real.

Evoking a sense of place that goes deeper than shots of the Ben Franklin statue atop City Hall, Coogler evinces an affection for the City of Brotherly Love that feels both genuine and knowing. It was Mick who disdainfully suggested that Rocky retire, but then switched gears when hired as his trainer. “You’re gonna eat lightning and you’re gonna crap thunder,” he growled to his charge. Actual boxers, including Brit Tony Bellew as “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, and tight camerawork from French cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) complete the screen illusion.

All eyes are on Jordan and rightly so, but Stallone also earns his place, reprising the downbeat, lovable lug from Rocky Balboa who struggled to get past emotional and physical blocks for one last shot at a title. Rocky is in mourning, and Coogler finds a resonant cinematic correlate to his mortal thoughts: his solitary talk at the graves of Adrian and her late brother, Paul, which brings to mind iconic scenes from John Ford’s “Young Mr. The sequels stuck to the underdog formula and varied in quality: From the maudlin depths of 1979’s Rocky II to the entertaining flash and circus of 1982’s Rocky III; from the on-the-nose Cold War representation of 1985’s Rocky IV to 2006’s unmemorable Rocky Balboa. Yet the themes of love, loyalty, ambition, honor and legacy that lend sinew to the story are delivered with such a clean punch that they as feel as fresh as they did in 1976. 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. By Rocky V, the champ is concussed and back living in the old run-down neighbourhood, but the rise-and-fall narrative wasn’t as winning as the original Gonna Fly Now climb. 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. As the agreeable Balboa told his entrepreneurial future brother-in-law Paulie in the first film, “If you can make money off my name, make it, okay?” 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).

But Bianca plays a crucial function in the movie’s overarching vision: unlike Adonis, who is the son of Apollo Creed, the adoptive son of Mary Anne Creed, and the beneficiary of Rocky Balboa’s experience and contacts, Bianca is truly on her own, trying to make it as an artist on her own. 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. 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.

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