Review: Exciting ‘Creed’ pulls no punches

24 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Michael B. Jordan goes toe-to-toe in ‘Creed’.

It took director Ryan Coogler years to persuade Sylvester Stallone to bring the Italian Stallion out of retirement for Creed (in theaters Wednesday), a Rocky spinoff focused on a young fighter, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Sure, most of them are exactly the same movie. (Rocky has to fight somebody no one thinks he can defeat, he trains real hard, and then he ends up winning—or, at least, gaining a significant moral victory.) But Stallone (who wrote every installment except for the forthcoming Creed and directed every one except Rocky and Creed) added feeling to the formula by fashioning the series as a running commentary on celebrity, aging and the way boxing grinds up its greatest fighters. (One of this Oscar-winning franchise’s secret weapons is its poignant charting of the passage of time, which sorta makes the Rocky films the Boyhood of sports sequels.) With Creed receiving glowing reviews, let’s go back and rank all seven films.

Jordan), Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, who is on his own gritty quest for glory. “This movie is such a big experiment for me,” says Stallone, 69, who wonders, “Will the kind of sentimentality, that underdog aspect of Rocky I, be valid today in the form of Creed’s son?” Coogler is betting on it. He last directed Jordan in the lauded indie Fruitvale Station, and he concocted Creed’s story based on his relationship with his ailing father, a Rocky fanatic. “I have a relationship with the Rocky movies that’s probably similar to a lot of people’s,” says Coogler, who was born after Rocky IV came out. After 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth installment in the series about the perennial-underdog fighter, Stallone figured he was most likely forever done playing the character he’d first brought to life in the seminal 1976 smash “Rocky.” “That movie was the toughest sell of all,” the actor recalled of “Rocky Balboa” on a recent afternoon. “‘Rocky V’ was considered a failure financially and critically.

There’s not much more that says “Rocky Balboa” than a movie that begins with the fighter being diagnosed with brain damage (and still having two more movies to come, over the span of 25 years). Then his father got sick, suffering from a neuromuscular disease. “His skeletal muscles were atrophying, so he literally was becoming weaker,” Coogler says. “He was losing the things that he associated with his masculinity and independence.” A new take on Rocky’s post-fighting years emerged in the director’s mind. “That was when I came up with this story of this hero kind of dealing with his own mortality,” he says.

This is pretty obviously the worst Rocky movie, a hackneyed, sort of embarrassing retread of every Rocky trope, filtered through a ham-handed father-son bonding story between Rocky and his son Robert (played, shakily, by the late Sage Stallone, Sly’s son). The sixth film had been a victory lap, a solid sendoff after a disappointing return on 1990’s Rocky V. “It was very nerve-wracking in the beginning; that’s why it took a little while to commit to it,” Stallone says. “I knew Michael’s sincerity, Ryan’s sincerity, but no one starts out (and) sits around a table with a screenplay and the director goes, ‘I’ve got a great idea — let’s make a real bomb!’ ” Creed, Coogler’s second feature, begins its story in Los Angeles, introducing Adonis, who never met his famous heavyweight champion father.

It’s that indomitable spirit that has made him one of the most beloved characters in movie history. (When the American Film Institute ranked the greatest movie heroes in 2003, Rocky came in at No. 7, between Clarice Starling and Ellen Ripley.) On Nov. 25, audiences will get one more chance to see Stallone reprise the role that launched him to sudden worldwide fame four decades ago. In “Creed,” a spinoff of the “Rocky” franchise directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”), the aging Balboa reluctantly agrees to train an up-and-coming fighter named Adonis Creed (Michael B.

To see a character that’s multi-layered and inspirational, somebody you can root for, I think that was very important to show the youth, to inspire them to do whatever they want, to follow their dreams. So Adonis sets off for Philadelphia seeking out the one man who has access to his legacy. “He’s going through pretty much what Rocky went through in a different way,” Stallone says. “Rocky had given up on life. (Adonis) hasn’t given up on life. Following the pattern set up in Rocky III, Rocky IV burdens our hero with the death of someone close to him—in this case, Apollo Creed—before facing his greatest opponent yet, a feared Soviet Union fighter elegantly named Ivan Drago (played by the equally elegantly named Dolph Lundgren). At 69, Stallone finds the idea that Rocky has now come full circle — from small-time lovable loser to world champion to grizzled mentor — both fitting and strange. “I’m now the same age Burgess Meredith was in ‘Rocky’ — isn’t that weird?” he said. “I’m the guy who’s knocking on the door going, ‘Hey, kid.’ It’s an unbelievable feeling. What was always great about this franchise—the underdog narrative, Rocky’s scrappy likability—is buried under Stallone’s well-intentioned but badly overblown attempt to address the growing tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that were occurring at the time. (We will confess, though, that seeing this movie as kids made us assume that the winner of a boxing match always delivered a speech to the crowd at the end of a bout.) File Rocky IV alongside other awkwardly earnest 1980s political commentaries like Sting’s “Russians” and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and never think of it again. (The James Brown song in the movie ain’t bad, though—even if we do kinda prefer Weird Al’s parody.) All right, so allotting for the fact that there has never been a worse fake-boxer name in the history of boxing movies than “Mason (The Line) Dixon”—played perfectly acceptably by Antonio Tarver—this one is closer to the emotional heart of the original than it is given credit for.

I’d say my life is about 96% failures, but if you just get that 4% right, that’s all you need.” In person, with his muscles bulging under his shirt, Stallone still looks as though he could lay flat a much younger man. This, inevitably, leads to the two men fighting for real, and then the greatest hits start playing: We get a vintage Rocky training montage, some inspirational speeches, some cartoonishly brutal fight scenes and, “Get up, Rock, get up!” This is all corny, but it’s played with real sincerity, and the father-son business that grated in Rocky V works much better here.

But in the end, he’s looking for validation, and eventually Rocky was, too.” Creed is finding a Thanksgiving feast of validation from the critics. “With apologies to Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago, Ryan Coogler’s rousingly emotional new film is the best installment since the 1976 original,” raves Entertainment Weekly. Before achieving fame, he said, “I walked around with a deep-seated inferiority complex.” He still comes across as modest and self-deprecating, aiming his toughest jabs at himself. Variety heralds Stallone for “digging deeper as an actor than he has in years.” The Chicago Tribune begrudgingly acknowledges: “Turns out we really did need another Rocky movie.” “Sly took the pressure off me, Ryan took the pressure off of me,” says Jordan, 28, who piled on muscle to convincingly play a fighter whose name spurs heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by three-time former Amateur Boxing Association of England heavyweight champion Tony Bellew) to dangle a big-ticket fight. “That was the biggest relief ever. You’ve got to understand how much that character means to people and what he stands for on the screen, to be able to put him in situations where you see him as such a strong character in the first six films and then you see the roles reversed, this guy you see as a fighter and a champion not be that strong.

Stallone’s quietly soulful performance in “Creed” already has some Oscar pundits considering him as a potential supporting actor nominee, but he brushes off that sort of talk. “Can you imagine? That would be really funny, wouldn’t it?” Though he was nominated for best actor for the first “Rocky” as well as for his screenplay, he has often been treated as a punching bag over the years for what some have deemed his limited acting range and tendency to play monosyllabic roles. That began a long doldrum.” Over the course of his career, Stallone has appeared in roughly 60 movies — big hits, big flops and everything in between. Despite the threat to Rocky that he might go blind if he keeps boxing—or the scare of Adrian falling into a coma after giving birth to their son prematurely—this sequel delivers the rousing, satisfying conclusion that anybody could have hoped for (or seen coming) after the Oscar-winning original.

A) It’s the classic storyline of a hero who loses touch with what makes him special, and so he has to relearn things about himself in order to make it back to the top. (“You got civilized, Rock,” Mickey tells him. Still, until he met Stallone in person to pitch him the idea for “Creed,” which he co-wrote with Aaron Covington, he didn’t fully appreciate the depth of his talent. “I watched all these Stallone movies growing up in the ’90s like ‘Demolition Man’ and ‘Cliffhanger,’ but he was still Rocky to me, so I went into his office expecting him to be that character,” Coogler said. “As soon as I met him, I realized he’s the exact opposite. Finally my agent said, ‘For a guy who played Rocky, you’re kind of a chicken.'” Eventually, Stallone warmed to the idea of bringing Rocky back for one more round, this time as a kind of ringside Buddha and father figure to a younger fighter. “There are certain things I’m allowed to say through Rocky that I can’t say through Rambo or anyone else,” he said. “Rocky is very preachy. At its heart, Rocky is simply a quiet love story about two shy Philadelphians who might not be the smartest folk but are good-hearted and discover that they need one another.

That’s what Rocky really is: a springboard for the way I see life or wish life was.” The fact is, Stallone knows that, even though he brought Rocky into this world, the character doesn’t just belong to him anymore. Roger Ebert was gently mocked for once saying Stallone in this film reminded him of the young Brando, but if this were the only movie Stallone ever made, I bet we’d talk about him that way. The later films kept trying to recreate the underdog story—attempting to constantly reinvent Rocky as a scrappy unlikely hero after the previous movie had just told us how much of a champion he was—but this one does it naturally, with no effort as all. Remember: When the fight ends, Rocky doesn’t want a rematch, he ignores the ringside reporters, he doesn’t even listen to the judges’ scores being announced.

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