Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Creed Movie Review

In an age of reboots and sequels galore coming to theaters and television, it’s easy to become jaded by the lack of originality and craven capitalist instinct to cash in on a known product. Most of the time these projects wind up utter failures because the success of a piece of pop culture entertainment, be it movie, TV show, music, or book is as much the product of the culture in which it was produced and released as the actual quality of the work. You can get the band back together, but you can’t recreate the external climate that contributed to their greatness or the public perception thereof.

But every now and then someone comes along and gives us something that defies reasonably low expectations. Ryan Coogler had an idea for how to reboot the Rocky franchise. He got it made and it’s astounding. Coogler went back to the roots of the series, to the Rocky of 1976 about a down-and-out loan shark enforcer and amateur boxer who gets an unlikely shot at the title. Rocky captured imaginations the year of the bicentennial celebration, making people think about the American idea of success and everyone having opportunity. The sequels became ever-increasing examples of 1980s action movie excess that ignored the need for character and story. Coogler is the real deal, however.

Rocky Balboa becomes a supporting player in Creed, making room for Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s best friend and two-time adversary, Apollo Creed. A short opening that fills in some background shows Apollo’s widow Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad) adopting the boy out of a juvenile home and raising him with the fortune and opportunity left to her by her late husband. Regardless of all the success afforded him, Adonis – or Donnie – is drawn to the sport of his father against his mother’s wishes

After quitting his job, he takes off for Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, where he will find a familial bond (uncle, father, brother-figure) in Rocky, played for the seventh time by Sylvester Stallone. Donnie convinces Rocky to train him and eventually word gets out about his heritage and a big fight comes knocking.

Coogler’s story and his directorial execution of it deftly pay homage to the history of the franchise and the tone of the first film while also carving a new storyline for itself. He makes this a true passing of the baton and never goes for the easy sucker punches of forced drama or sappy sentimentality. There’s plenty of drama and sentiment to be revealed, but every moment lands honestly.

As Donnie, Michael B. Jordan has the charisma to carry the film and the character. There’s complexity in what could have been a cocky and preening young man. He starts out full of himself, removing his gloves before the knockout count is finished in an early fight. He leaves a good job and life where he’s on a rewarding career path. He foolishly puts up his Mustang and challenges anyone in the gym where he hopes to train to land a single head shot. It takes his reduction to modest means, the friendship of Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a local Philly musician who came up on the streets and has several challenges to overcome for herself, and his relationship with Rocky to become fully capable of the humility it takes to don his father’s name and step into the ring with a more experienced champion where he’s all but guaranteed to lose.

Creed doesn’t just retread the ground covered by previous films in the franchise. It walks in their footsteps and does a better than admirable job of filling those giant shoes. Fault it though you may for revisiting a triumphant training run through the streets, but watching Donnie sprint alongside the modern-day dirt bike riders who cheer for one of Philly’s favorite sons honors the legacy of the fictional Apollo Creed as well as the films.

And Coogler peppers little homages and nods throughout the film. Rocky has become the new Mickey. He’s aging, moving slowly, but now relying on his experience and wits to get through. Ludwig Göransson’s musical score is original and gives Donnie a theme of his own, but it still harmonically recalls the classic theme. And while sitting there in the theater waiting for that trumpet fanfare to open the film, I was both disappointed and not when it didn’t. I figured it would turn up later during a training montage. It didn’t. Just when I had come to the conclusion that I would not hear Bill Conti’s iconic music, it pops in at the absolute perfect moment. The confluence of perfection that concludes with that musical cue includes a lot of blood and sweat in the ring, bone-weary huffing and puffing from Jordan, and a rousing speech by Stallone. The moment is emotionally uplifting; it is the very heart of the movie. That music takes what is already the dramatic climax of the film and pushes it to new heights and then very wisely understands exactly how much is necessary to achieve a hat tip without overreach.

As Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed potentially becomes the torch-bearer for a possible rebooted version of this series, Creed the movie does a phenomenal job of calling attention to fading greatness, to aging, and to the onset of inevitable decline in health and well-being. Stallone is not getting any younger. Most of his films over the last decade have been a tacit admission of that fact as well as a refusal to accept it as he has revisited his most iconic roles in new sequels (in Rocky Balboa and Rambo) and created The Expendables, a new series that effectively attempts to revive the glory of his action movie dominance for nearly twenty years. To watch the character Rocky Balboa in Creed is to accept once and for all that neither this character nor this actor will remain with us forever. They are not invincible. In one of the film’s final scenes, Rocky once more ascends that famous staircase in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum, this time with Donnie providing the motivation. Watching an old and hobbled man climb step by step, catching his breath at each landing, struggling to get to the very top after seeing him sprint up the same stairs forty years ago is a sobering and beautiful reminder that not everything once great can remain.

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