Thursday, March 03, 2016

"Creed": review

I was happy to see that "Creed," directed by the very able Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, had become available on Amazon Prime Video. I snatched it up and watched it last night. Long story short: "Creed" is better than it has a right to be, and it's a fitting addition to the Rocky canon. Amazon Prime Video now features movie-trivia clickables that pop up if you pause the movie, which is how I found out that (1) this is the first Rocky film not to feature the name "Rocky" in its title, and (2) this is the first Rocky film not written by Sylvester Stallone (he was, however, a deeply involved consultant).

The story focuses on Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed had already died. Adonis went through a tough childhood but was rescued by Mary Anne Creed, Apollo's wife but not Adonis's mother (like Jon Snow, Adonis lives under the shadow of bastardy: Apollo had had an affair, and Adonis was the issue from that affair). Adonis grows up to be a smart, educated young man with great business savvy and a promising office-bound career ahead of him, but fighting is in his blood, and he participates in barely legal south-of-the-border matches, earning cash on the side and building an undefeated record. Adonis is smart enough to know that his lack of training is holding him back, and he makes the decision to become a serious pro boxer. This puts him on the path to meeting Rocky Balboa, now retired and tending to his simple Italian restaurant, Adrian's.

Adonis tracks Rocky down, and they have a wary first meeting, but things eventually warm up as Adonis finally convinces Rocky to train him. The two agree that Adonis's heritage should not be a factor: neither Rocky nor Adonis wants word to get around that Adonis is the progeny of one of the greatest fighters in the world; besides, Adonis wants to earn respect on his own merits. Training continues; Adonis meets the lovely Bianca, a singer with big dreams but cursed with progressive hearing loss. Rocky warns that "women weaken the legs," but he obviously likes Bianca, too, and welcomes her into his home (Adonis moves in with Rocky once the training gets serious).

Drama is nothing if not conflict, and three issues come up that keep our hero from maximal happiness: first, there's the delicate matter of not telling Bianca who Adonis Johnson really is. Bianca knows the history and immediately recognizes Rocky as a Philadelphia legend, which means she obviously knows about Rocky's best friend Apollo Creed. The last thing Adonis wants or needs is for Bianca to find out on her own that he isn't merely some guy. The second speed bump is Rocky's health. I don't want to say too much about that, but it's in the preview trailer, so merely mentioning that Rocky is dealing with both old age and disease doesn't seem too spoiler-y. The third problem arrives in the form of bad-boy British boxing champ "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, the current world light-heavyweight champion. Adonis gets one professional bout under his belt, but he's woefully lacking in pro experience, and thanks to some backstage maneuvering (Rocky has reservations), Conlan is Adonis' next fight.

Director Ryan Coogler has his own style, but he shows his respect for the previous Rocky films in the way he paces his movie, and in the imagery he evokes. The music, by Swedish nutcase Ludwig Göransson, is all over the place stylistically, but after wandering around in John Williams/James Horner territory, it faithfully returns to the original strains of Bill Conti's primal—and at this point culturally indelible—leitmotifs. Back to Coogler: he borrows some amazingly long tracking shots from Scorsese's bag of tricks, including one incredible shot that takes in an entire two-round fight in a single take. This is basically "Birdman"-level filmmaking, incredible camera work, and I have enormous respect for Coogler, whom I'd only barely heard of before (he made the acclaimed "Fruitvale Station," which I have yet to see). "Creed" is, apparently, only his second feature film.

The film is as much a love letter to scruffy old Philadelphia as it is a boxing drama and a heroic narrative. We learn some Philly slang, like the omni-useful expression "jawn," a word used to describe anything and everything. We get more than a glimpse of Max's Steaks, one of very few true cheesesteak Meccas (yes, it really exists). We see some of Philly's wheelie-popping biker culture—bikers who actually help Adonis out by giving him encouragement during his training. Old, ramshackle neighborhoods are shown without any hint of judgment by the director: they're not over-romanticized, nor are they melodramatically turned into hellish ghettos; they simply are. Finally, we take a sentimental trip up Rocky's steps—the steps that lead up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rocky's much older now, and he's sick, so this is more of a slow trudge than anything like a run, but it's one more iconic glimpse of Philly.

This brings us to Stallone's performance in "Creed." I can see why he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar: "Creed" features some of the man's best work. Stallone failed to snag the Oscar, but if it's any consolation to him, he did win a Golden Globe, a Critics' Choice Award, an Austin Film Critics Association Award, and even a Razzie Redeemer Award after having been nominated for—and having won—many a Razzie for poor acting in his action films and comedies. Stallone is pushing seventy, now; putting him in the ring this time around would have been beyond ludicrous. But time has eroded Stallone's harder edges, made him heavier and a bit doughier. He can do a world-weary hangdog expression like nobody's business, and he uses his slow deliberateness to excellent effect in "Creed." (The film's trivia clickables note that Stallone is now the same age that Burgess Meredith was when Meredith appeared as Rocky's trainer Mickey in the first "Rocky.")

This is going to sound very weird, but I was actually touched, at some moments, by Stallone's performance. For a little while, or so it seemed to me, Sly had decided to stop making silly movies and to get back to being serious; this was a welcome change. Sly also got to look like death warmed over for half the film (big ups to the makeup guys and gals—Stallone looked positively shocking in many of those scenes), which of course increased our sympathy for the character. Poor Rocky has watched the world change; he's watched his fame fade, his strength depart, his life become increasingly emptier. When young Adonis comes into the picture, Rocky suddenly finds himself with a purpose again. Stallone manages to convey all of these changes like the old hand he is.

Tessa Thompson plays Adonis's girlfriend Bianca. She does a marvelous job in a well-written role, playing a strong female character who is already forging ahead on her own path when she meets Adonis. Bianca and Adonis are worlds apart in terms of their passions: she's a musician and he's a boxer. But they're both looking for depth of experience, for excellence, and each can appreciate the strengths and depths of the other. Thompson brings humor, intelligence, and energy to her role; I hope to see her in other films soon.

Michael B. Jordan is someone I already knew from having seen "Chronicle" (mentioned, but not really reviewed, here). Ripped and looking like a being made of living stone, Jordan plays Adonis Johnson—later Adonis Creed—as well as could be asked for. He's a versatile actor; the street-tough vibe that Jordan emanates in "Creed" is nothing like the handsome-prom-king aura he projected in "Chronicle." I can't imagine how hard he must have worked out, but with someone like Sylvester Stallone as his mentor, life on and off the set must have been tough. Stallone is famous (infamous?) for the mountains of abuse he heaps on himself when doing physical roles; he's routinely injured and has become a mass of scar tissue and gnarled bone as a result. Jordan would have had to rise to Stallone's (and Ryan Coogler's) merciless expectations in making this movie. Jordan, too, gave a strong and often touching performance, especially as Rocky and Adonis slip more and more comfortably into a father-son dynamic (Adonis refers to Rocky as "Unc," much to Bianca's amusement).

I suppose I shouldn't conclude this review without mentioning Tony Bellew as "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, the closest thing this film has to a bad guy (unless that honor goes to crazy Scotsman Graham McTavish—Dwalin in the Hobbit films—who plays Conlan's agent and trainer, Tommy Holiday). Bellew is, in real life, a champion boxer (see his record here). He had the acting chops to pull off the role of the resident asshole; I suspect he's got a good film career ahead of him if he's all right with being typecast as a heavy. Bellew's Conlan is a menacing presence on the silver screen; it would be churlish of me to spoil how the Conlan/Creed fight goes. There's one interesting wrinkle to Conlan's character: during the pre-fight interview, when he's talking trash about Creed, Conlan actually pauses to give respect to Rocky because he sees himself as having fought his way up from poverty the way Rocky had done years ago. It would have been nice for the movie to have explored Conlan's personality a bit more, but I understand that the story's primary focus was on Rocky and Adonis.

All in all, "Creed" surprised me with how good it was. Ryan Coogler proved to be a very capable director who managed both to break new ground and to keep this newest Rocky film in line with the films that went before it. The film had heart, and a fighter's soul.


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3 comments:

hahnak said...

im in the mood for a movie. we will look out for it tonight after the kids are tucked in! thanks!

Kevin Kim said...

So what'd you think? Did I make you waste two hours, or did you like the movie?

hahnak said...

it was a good show. it was entertaining. i dont really remember rocky, but my husband said that in that movie, rocky had to count fingers like adonis did. i suspect you probably remember that film better than i do. thanks for the recommendation!