Thursday, May 5, 2016
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Wood Harris, Andre Ward, Gabriel Rosado, Ritchie Coster
Running Time: 133 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
If it's true that everything starts with an idea, it helps to have a really good one and the ability to deliver on it. I'd imagine director/co-writer Ryan Coogler's pitch of a new Rocky film was initially met with a skeptical eye roll from both studio executives and maybe even a few of the actors he approached to be a part of it. And given the state of the franchise after some underwhelming sequels and a disappointing 2006 curtain call, it's hard to blame them. Despite not counting myself a huge fan of the original and among those frequently questioning its 1977 Best Picture victory in a highly competitive year, even I'd have trouble denying its cultural impact. It's one of the few Oscar winners still remembered and talked about to this day, regardless of the extent to which its sequels somewhat tarnished its legacy.
Anyone looking to recapture the feelings of goodwill that first film generated in so many you'd need a really strong narrative hook. With Creed, Coogler finds it. And in doing so he makes the ultimate Rocky movie and the one everyone's been waiting for without knowing they wanted it. In the most purely honest way possible, he tricks us into watching another entry by not making one. It isn't until the last scene that you realize what happened, and by the point, you're at too much of an emotional high to get hung up on it. By their very nature, sports movies follow a certain formula, but in the best ones there's this magic that takes place that transports audiences and makes them forget, even as the script and its characters sink deeply into it. Formulas do exist for a reason, but a good director, like a magician, never reveals his tricks. In Creed, all the wheels are turning but we're never consciously aware of the machinations.
Cleverly, the sequel/spin-off is jump-started with one question: What about Apollo Creed? We know Rocky's opponent, friend and mentor (played by Carl Weathers) died in the ring, but he left someone behind. A son from an extramarital affair named Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who's been fighting and starting trouble since his days at a youth detention facility in the late 90's. It wasn't until Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) took him in that he started to have anything resembling a normal upbringing. Fifteen years later, he's on the fast track to a promotion at a Los Angeles-based financial firm, even as something eats away at him. He goes down to Tijuana on the weekends to box, demonstrating the burning desire to fight that's persisted since childhood.
After being rejected at his father's gym, he quits his job and heads to Philadelphia, landing at the doorstep of Adrian's restaurant and in front of the only man he knows can train him: His dad's opponent, friend and mentor, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Initially reluctant, Rocky agrees, but when word gets out that Donnie is Creed's son, the marketing potential of that teaming can't be ignored, so despite being nowhere near ready, Donnie must prepare for the fight of his life against the world lightweight champion, "Pretty" Ricky Conlon (Tony Bellew), an intimidating British brute preparing for a retirement bout before he heads to prison. And in doing this, Donnie must not only come to terms with taking on his late father's name, but do justice to his legacy even as he struggles with his own.
All this manages to work so well due to a series of creative decisions made by Coogler that are played to perfection, each piece of the puzzle organically falling into place to create a maximum entertainment experience from start to finish. It isn't much of a stretch to buy that Apollo Creed has an illegitimate son who felt abandoned, or that he'd harbor much of the rage his father did, not to mention many of his fighting skills. And it's even less of one to believe that the emotionally beat down Rocky we see here (an incarnation that's a far cry from any previous outing) wouldn't want to be near the ring again in any capacity, either as a cornerman or trainer because of what it dredges up. But we also know that he can't resist and as much as the underdog story parallels that of the original, it's surprising just how different it feels in both tone and execution, shot and edited to more closely resemble something grittier, like Southpaw or The Fighter. And Ludwig Göransson's soundtrack effectively pays tribute to pieces of Bill Conti's original score without attempting to slavishly mimic or overuse it.
There's an urgency here that went missing through most of the sequels and a familiarity in also acknowledging their purposeful existence in getting the characters to this point, most of whom we're meeting for the first time. The result feels new and fresh, releasing the franchise of the baggage and stigma that's weighed it down over the past couple of decades. This is the mentor role Stallone should have probably played already, but feels strangely even more appropriate now because he's at the stage of his life and career where he's caught up to us, and feels ready. In a way, it's similar to Mickey Rourke's role in The Wrestler in how it works on this meta level that almost makes it impossible to separate the role from what we know about the actor playing it. He's not at all "playing himself" but rather using his and the character's rich history to create this whole other layer from which he draws from to create this deep performance, his strongest and quietest dramatic turn since Copland.
When a development occurs that turns Rocky's world inside-out it should feel manipulative, but doesn't because Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington understand that this is the natural progression for a lonely guy who's world really ended when Adrian died. Much like the series itself, he was just going through the motions. Training Donnie briefly alleviates that and Stallone's scenes opposite the perfectly cast Jordan are magnificent, recalling not only the best training sequences from the Rocky films, but some of the more memorable mentoring relationships captured on film, like that in The Karate Kid.
Previously working with Coogler when he played shooting victim Oscar Grant in 2013's Fruitvale Station, Jordan gave a superb performance in service of a film that didn't completely return the favor. With it came the responsibility of playing a real-life figure whose death ignited a firestorm of controversy. Here, he's shouldering a different kind of responsibility, and as the centerpiece and driving force behind an iconic franchise, he's the new Rocky. Or more accurately, the first Adonis Creed, with Jordan drawing on his own physical preparation for the role and natural charisma and intensity. He leaves little doubt Adonis is very much his father's son, and it's only when he comes around to fully accepting that, will he be able to step out from behind his shadow.
But his trajectory does seem to mirror Rocky's more than his dad's with not only his untrained underdog status as a fighter, but burgeoning relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a hearing impaired musician in his building whom he starts to date. Even this is handled exceptionally well, as intrinsically weaved into the plot as Rocky's romance with Adrian. It helps that the completely engaging and likable Thompson shines in every scene she's given, sharing excellent chemistry with her co-star. It's kind of one of those happy surprises that this turns out as well as it does, while also managing to be subtly touching at times, never forcing the issue. Just two great actors doing their thing.
For the first time in a while it feels like we're building to a fight worthy of the hype it's gotten through faux HBO video packages cleverly interspersed into the film, raising the stakes much higher than they've been in the franchise's recent history. Creed's opponent is a monster who carries himself like a serial killer and has about ten times the experience, practically mirroring Balboa's predicament in the original. With an outcome that's legitimately in doubt, the final fight is masterfully filmed and edited, giving us room to breathe and take in the action, showing just how far the staging of these sequences have come since the worst of the previous installments. Everything about this carries a "big fight" feel, and the result is the right one, despite my worries of its implications for the franchise moving forward.
As much as I care what happens to these characters, I'm still hesitant in wanting more. While I loved what we got, and maybe even prefer it to the original in many ways, part of me wishes they'd stop here before it's too late. We all know that won't happen as long as there's money to be made, but the last thing we need is a succession of inferior sequels made by rotating directors that devalue the achievement of Coogler and his talented cast. But who knows? Maybe it's possible to craft a worthy Creed follow-up if everyone's on the same page. But it'll be tough to top the rush you get here when the Rocky theme swells up at just the right moment, knowing it's being played again in a movie that's truly earned it.