Movie review: ‘Creed’ is best Rocky movie since ‘Rocky’

25 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A feast of films on Thanksgiving Eve.

He still is, whether he’s working the speed bag or training a young boxer, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (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.But for the young actor, there was no way of missing the fact he was stepping into a huge cultural legacy with his new movie Creed — which turns the focus to the son of Rocky’s great rival, Apollo Creed. “You have enough people saying it around you,” Jordan says with a laugh from Philadelphia — the home of all things Rocky. “And honestly, it’s kinda hard to do an exterior scene in Philadelphia with Sylvester Stallone — you have hundreds of fans lined up on the sidewalk waiting for us to yell cut, then they’re like ‘Sly!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 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? 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. 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. Inspired by his experience with his own ailing father years ago, Coogler came up with the story of Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis, who is trying to make his own name in boxing and seeks out the reluctant Rocky to be his trainer. 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.

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. 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 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.

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.”

Now, some are tipping the veteran’s emotional performance for an Oscar. “And with this one, I feel people are going to really open up to him opening up. He really brought something and it touched me a lot.” Having grown up a sporty, competitive kid in New Jersey, Jordan took to the challenge of getting in pro boxer shape with glee. 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. 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 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. 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. I’ll give up some doughnuts and cheese steak for this.” The positive response to Creed brings with it a very high probability Jordan will now continue the franchise along this new branch.

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. 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.

The superhero movie was all but disowned by its director, Josh Trank, on Twitter just before its release and its entire gross in the US only limped to the same mark Ant-Man hit on its opening weekend. “Honestly the biggest lesson I learnt from that is everything’s not in your control,” Jordan says. “You can show up to work every day and give 130 per cent and do the best job you can and sometimes you might still miss your mark. 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.

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). 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. 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. 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.

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. It’s too bad that Dalton Trumbo — or some Hollywood heir apparent — couldn’t script this story about the highest paid screenwriter in the world who landed in a Kentucky federal prison in 1950 and was blacklisted after being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s all too easy, in the age of Steadicam, for a director to request, and a cinematographer to deliver, long, smooth, and intricate travelling shots that, in the era of tracking rails and cranes, would have been massive feats of industrial craft. (One result of this ubiquitous technique is the blandly showy stunt-cinematography of “Birdman” and “Victoria.”) In “Creed,” Coogler calls upon his cinematographer, Maryse Alberti (a mainstay of independent filmmaking for a quarter century), to create elaborate travelling shots as well, but what they achieve together is no mere stunt or flash—it’s as much a mark of substance as it is of style. 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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