Wednesday, December 2, 2015

New movie review: Creed

Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Johnson in writer-director Ryan Coogler's excellent Creed.

A lot of us probably went through the five stages of movie reboot grief when the announcement came that there was a new Rocky movie in the works. Denial – Well, movies get announced all the time; that doesn’t mean anyone’s actually going to make it. Anger – How dare they ruin the legacy of a classic character like Rocky Balboa? Bargaining – As long as they respect the history of the originals, maybe it will be okay. Depression – They’re really going through with this, eh? Acceptance – Looks like it comes out around Thanksgiving; I guess it’s that or see Spectre again.

Only, I never had any trepidation about the new film because it has one thing no other reboot, remake, or sequel has: writer-director Ryan Coogler. Sure enough, under the steady, guiding hand of one of the best young filmmakers in the business, Creed is a crowd-pleasing triumph that takes a world we loved and updates it for the world we know.

Those folks nervous about a return to this universe probably had good reason to be. Sometimes in boxing, a fighter comes back one too many times – hell, it is the plot of at least three Rocky movies – but that fighter is rarely infused with this much new blood, new energy, and new life. Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington, who worked closely with Sylvester Stallone in developing the script, have a firm grasp of both the established world of the film and the next-generation story they want to tell. As such, Creed shines as a stirring, bold standalone film and a worthy successor to the Rocky franchise.

Coogler reteams with his Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan to tell the story of Adonis Johnson, son of Rocky rival and friend Apollo Creed. Adonis spends his youth in and out of group homes and juvenile detention centers until he is taken in by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). She brings him up with the intention of getting him away from fighting, but he proves to be his father’s son, seemingly genetically drawn to the ring.

Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in Creed.
Because of the way Apollo died, however, no trainer of worth will take on Adonis, so he moves to Philadelphia to seek counsel from the long-retired Rocky. The former heavyweight champion, now restauranteur, whose life has been defined mostly by struggle and loss, is initially reluctant, but he has the same fighting gene as Apollo and Adonis, and he cannot stay away. Now, with Rocky in his corner, Adonis seeks to build his own legacy and escape the darkness of the long shadow cast by his father.

Stallone wrote the first six Rocky movies and directed four of them, and his handle on the character he created is as strong now as it was nearly 40 years ago. Across seven films in five different decades, Stallone has never lost sight of the sweet, quiet guy with a champion’s heart that made Rocky so lovable and popular. When Adonis takes a photo on his phone and tells Rocky he has uploaded it to the cloud, Stallone’s brief, curious glance up at the sky tells us all we need to know about the character. This is still our Rocky.

All credit, though, goes to Coogler, who developed the original story for this film, for keeping the focus squarely on Adonis. As important as Stallone is to the character and Rocky is to the plot, Creed is not a Rocky movie. Rocky is in the final act of his life, while Adonis is in the first act of his. So, while it may be fun to see one of our favorite old characters brought back one more time, the real draw is watching Adonis’ story develop and, by extension, Jordan’s remarkable performance.

It is hard to say maybe from where you might know Jordan best. His first major onscreen work came in The Wire. Later came recurring roles on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. I caught my first real glimpse of him in the excellent 2012 found-footage movie Chronicle, but his real breakout came two years ago in Coogler’s acclaimed true-life drama Fruitvale Station as the doomed Oscar Grant. In all of these parts, Jordan has been impressive, but in both his physical and emotional commitment to Adonis, we see him stretch his range further than he ever has. If this is an indication of things to come for Jordan, it will be exciting to see where he chooses to go next.

Jordan and Tessa Thompson in Creed.
Jordan provides Adonis with a rough exterior and pained interior that make the audience root for him to grow, and he does with Rocky’s training and a burgeoning romance with Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Bianca is the rare female character in a sports movie with her own story and her own complex life experiences, and Thompson gives her the inner strength to match Adonis blow for emotional blow. A singer-songwriter with degenerative hearing loss, she does not need Adonis to make her whole, but they each benefit from having the other in their lives.

With all the pieces in place – a superb cast delivering great performances, a killer story, and a willing audience – all that is left is to deliver the knockout punch, and Coogler’s direction sure does deliver that. I had the chance to meet Coogler last year around this time when he and Jordan were at the Lincoln Center in New York City for a script reading of Do the Right Thing as part of #BlackOutBlackFriday.

Coogler grew up in the East Bay in Northern California, where I was also raised. I told him how much it meant to me to see the area I grew up in portrayed so vibrantly and so accurately on screen in Fruitvale Station. In our brief chat, he came off as a smart, passionate filmmaker who cares deeply about his subjects. The remarkable thing about Coogler is how he is able to bring that same passion and care he showed in his much more intimate first film to a large-scale, sports movie franchise. Creed is a characters-first movie, and every choice the director makes is in service of those characters.

For Adonis’ first fight with Rocky as his trainer, the entire bout is filmed in one extended take that boggles the mind for its technical prowess and emotional intensity. For those 10 minutes, every one of us is Adonis, sweating, bleeding, dealing punches, taking them, and simply trying to stay on our feet. It is a painful but rewarding experience and a beautiful microcosm of the film around it. To climb out of the shadows, Adonis must battle the darkness around him and within him, but when he reaches the light, the fight will have made it that much brighter and that much warmer.

See it? Yes.

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