Saturday, December 19, 2015

'Creed' review

Even after 39 years, the original Rocky is still one of the most rousing and spectacular sports dramas ever made. Grounded, gritty and unexpected in ways that you probably don't remember, Rocky is everything that a sports movie should be and it announced Sylvester Stallone as a major talent to watch. The series slipped into parody over the years with the arrival of Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago and the increasing absurdity of the prize fights, but for Stallone and some fans, the potential for another great Rocky movie was still there. That movie has arrived, and boy, is it something. I wouldn't exactly describe Creed as a Rocky reboot or direct sequel, although it doubles as both of those things. Instead, it's a fresh start for the franchise, relegating Sylvester Stallone's pugilist to the role of mentor and bringing in newly minted Hollywood superstar Michael B. Jordan to star as a young fighter. Simply one of the most purely cinematic experiences of 2015, Creed is a blast from start to finish, effectively building its characters and relationships before reaching a crescendo of epic proportions. It's one of the most dazzling films of the year and a reminder of what made this franchise resonate in the first place.

In Rocky IV, famous prizefighter Apollo Creed met his demise at the hands of Russian monster Ivan Drago. His friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone) was left devastated and so was his family, but one person was hurt in an unexpected way. When we meet Adonis Johnson (Jordan), he's in a juvenile detention facility, in trouble with the law for fighting with the other kids once again. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) comes to the Los Angeles prison and tells Johnson that he's the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. Mary Anne takes Adonis in and raise him in a very nice environment, gets him a job and keeps him out of trouble. But Adonis knows that he's meant for more. He travels to Tijuana on the weekends to participate in back-alley boxing matches and is very successful. Despite overwhelming success at his new job, Adonis quits and moves to Philadelphia with the goal of becoming a professional boxer.

Adonis goes from having everything- a nice car, nice house, good job- to having absolutely nothing. He lives in a small, one-bedroom apartment in the city and trains at a local gym without much help. Adonis knows that he needs more and he seeks out the help of Rocky to train him for a real career. But once word gets out that Adonis is a Creed, the boxing world is thrown into total disarray, causing pressure to mount on the duo of Rocky and Adonis. While Rocky deals with the death of everybody that he has ever cared about, Adonis is forced to confront the legacy of his father and find a way to shine in his own way. In the process, a permanent bond between Rocky and Adonis will be forever formed, and then just like that, a new instant film classic is born.

Let's get this one out of the way first- yes, the plot of Creed is a carbon copy of Rocky. It follows pretty much every plot beat and doesn't change the formula at all. But then again- the Rocky franchise has never changed the formula. It's not about the story, it's about how the story is told, who's telling it, and the people that inhabit the story. That's why The Force Awakens is wonderful despite the fact that it doesn't change much from the basic story of A New Hope. That's why Jurassic World is fantastic despite having a similar story to the original. We've seen the story in Creed, but it has rarely been told with as much vitality, energy and intimacy.

Creed was not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Rocky had a head start because of just how instantly likable the character of Rocky is. He's the underdog, the small town boxer with everything to prove and nothing to lose. A genuinely good guy facing a formidable opponent, we root for Rocky and we care about Rocky because of both the circumstances and the fact that he's a good character. Adonis Creed doesn't get that head start. While Adonis does begin on the streets, he's rescued by Mary Anne and becomes a rich guy pretty quickly. Adonis is arrogant and immature, and he practically gives away everything to go to Philadelphia. He's not a character that I instantly fell in love with.

And that's why it was so critical to get someone like Ryan Coogler behind the helm. He broke onto the scene with Fruitvale Station back in 2013 (which also starred Michael B. Jordan), and was immediately touted as one of the best young directors in Hollywood. Coogler knows how to make a good character drama, and that's what Creed is. Adonis changes from one scene to the next. His relationship with Rocky changes. His relationship with Bianca changes. In short, he's a dynamic character. He understands that if we don't root for Adonis, and if we don't believe his relationship with Rocky, then the whole movie collapses in on itself.

In addition, Coogler has a fundamental understanding of the Rocky franchise. He's undoubtedly a Rocky fan, and he throws in all of the necessary elements. There are rousing fight scenes, exhilarating training montages and some truly essential, instant classic-type moments. But he brings back what we loved about the franchise in the first place- the heart. Creed is a gritty, intense film. Adonis may seem like something artificial on the surface, but deep down inside, he's struggling with his father's legacy. He may seem like he's a kid with nothing to prove and no reason to be in the game, but as the film goes on, we realize just how critical it is that Adonis prove himself. Coogler brings energy and excitement to his direction of the film and I cannot wait to see where he goes from here. I liked Fruitvale Station, but Creed confirms Coogler's talent- he's going to be making movies for a long time.

Michael B. Jordan has been on Hollywood's "must-watch" list since Chronicle, but like Adonis in the film, Jordan had struggled to prove himself as a true superstar. Frutivale Station gave him his indie cred, but Fantastic Four, his first attempt at a major Hollywood picture, failed miserably. Jordan has found his breakout film with Creed. He's truly magnificent here, giving his absolute all to the role of Adonis Creed. Jordan's performance is not only physically impressive, but also emotionally poignant and sweet. He has terrific chemistry with Stallone and Tessa Thompson and there's a fantastic emotional arc.

Ultimately, Sylvester Stallone steals the movie. The famed action star has taken on the role of Rocky Balboa six times before, but not since 1976 has he had such a wonderfully written, meaty, even tragic part. Rocky is pretty much alone when we meet him in Creed. Everybody who he ever loved has passed on. He's running a restaurant and has abandoned the boxing world. When Adonis reaches out to him, he resists it and just goes along with it for the ride. But through their time together, and through the way that Adonis bonds with him, the two of them become dependent on each other. "If I fight, you fight," says Adonis, when Rocky grows sick. Jordan and Stallone are great together and the relationship between the two produces some absolutely beautiful moments. I hope that both of these actors garner Oscar nominations because they truly deserve it.

But beyond being a spectacular character drama, Creed is an incredible piece of entertainment, engaging from beginning to end and filled with thrilling set-pieces. Taking on the legacy of the Rocky franchise while putting its own spin on things, the fights are vicious, the training is intense and the crowd-pleasing moments come often. There's a hip-hop edge to Creed that allows it to feel fresh and interesting, amidst the more tried-and-true elements. We get songs from Future and Meek Mill, but there's also a brilliant new theme from Ludwig Goransson with a beat that is slightly altered from the theme in the original. Most importantly, the whole film builds to the final training montage and the final fight and that slow build allows for an explosion of nostalgia, emotion and energy, including the awesome use of the classic theme song. This conclusion packs one hell of a wallop and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.

Creed is simply fantastic. There's no other way to put it. Expectations were low from a lot of people in Hollywood, but Coogler and Jordan delivered more than I ever thought was possible here, creating one of the rare movies that is both deliciously compelling and phenomenally entertaining. The Rocky franchise was on its last legs before, but thanks to the dynamic between Jordan and Stallone and Coogler's mix of the old and new, the series has been reinvigorated. Gritty and full of heart, this movie is everything you could want it to be. Believe the hype- Creed is the real deal.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Image Credits: USA Today, Variety, Forbes, Joblo

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