Review: Creed passes on the Rocky torch and recaptures the original’s spirit

25 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Creed’ review: ‘Rocky’ series is a winner, again.

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).

There have been six “Rocky” movies – the new “Creed,” if you count it in the canon, is now the seventh – but really, there are only two kinds of “Rocky” movies. 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. I can’t express how relieved I was to see that “Rocky 7,” or as it is officially titled, “Creed,” is not the film that the marketing department promised us.

In some ways, it’s nearly a remake of the first movie, only with a switch – in this telling, Apollo Creed’s kid, Adonis, has taken over the Rocky role of the kid who wants to prove himself. 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. Unlike the brutal boxing melodrama that the previews pledged, this excellent sequel introduces new characters to the series while paying homage to the enduring appeal of its predecessors. “Creed” follows the themes and gambits of classic fight films but this is no paint-by-numbers imitation. 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.

It unabashedly manipulates audiences without guile, jerks tears, piles on hardships and smooths out conflicts on its way to a wholesome, uplifting finale. Creed never exploits or makes a mockery of what is best about the Rocky franchise — its inspirational qualities and its love and respect for the relentless underdog.

The director wisely refrains from reinventing the wheel, instead harnessing the earthy qualities that made the franchise’s first films so successful. So he makes a Philly pilgrimage – and finds the Italian Stallion, long retired from the sweet science and put out to pasture as the owner of a red-sauce joint. 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. And “Creed” is the best Rocky movie in a long time – largely because, frankly, it uses Sylvester Stallone as the sensitive actor he’d always aimed at being, and not the bombastic filmmaker he became.

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. Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler – a young African-American filmmaker behind “Fruitvale Station” – its trims away all the over-the-top, “Eye of the Tiger” nonsense that cluttered up the franchise and gets back to basics. 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 been a bit of movie joke in recent years – a statue as badly sculpted as the one he left behind in Philadelphia, occasionally coming to vein-popping life to shoot assault weapons. 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. 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 (as compelling here as he was in director Ryan Coogler’s previous film “Fruitvale Station”) infuses considerable depth to the essentially likable character. 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. And of course the climactic fight, with both light heavyweights going toe-to-toe, pounding at each other like a pair of jackhammers, looks like no real prizefight ever – and is played, in the 12th round, to a snatch of Bill Conti’s “Rocky” theme.

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.

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.

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. 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. 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.

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”. Stallone and Jordan make a great team in the inevitable training montages, a regimen of long runs and workouts in battered boxing gyms that capture the natural rhythm of fighting. But he ultimately proved dispensable, always played second fiddle, and before he became Rocky’s trainer, was deliberately characterised as an uppity, preening buppie.

The story builds through a trio of key fight scenes, one three-minute barrage composed with no visible cuts as if the camera is realistically capturing a real brawl. 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. 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.

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