Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review: Creed (2015)

Creed (2015)

Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality

Score: 4 out of 5

Creed is a movie that, like its protagonist, has the weight of a huge legacy on its shoulders. It's essentially Rocky VII in all but name, this time with a long-retired Rocky training the son of Apollo Creed to take his father's mantle in the ring. Like many successors to legends, Creed isn't as good as the movie that spawned it, and I'd wager that even Rocky Balboa, the comeback film from several years back that I'd argue is the second-best film in the series, may have this one beat. Still, as tradition-bound as it is, it's an outstanding boxing film in its own right, mostly on the backs of great performances from a Sylvester Stallone who's still got some gas left in the tank and from rising star Michael B. Jordan (no relation to the basketball player, though after this movie I don't think anybody's gonna get them confused), who's officially forgiven for the Fantastic Four reboot earlier this year and then some. It's a very good movie that rises to the occasion, and while a few missteps hold it back from greatness, it marks a rock-solid beginning to what I can hope is a new era for the series.

Our protagonist is Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), a young black man from Los Angeles who was bounced around group homes and the foster system before winding up in the care of Mary Anne, the widow of his birth father, boxing legend Apollo Creed. Donnie grows up in a safe, but boring, environment under Mary Anne's watch, eventually becoming an office worker and a successful amateur boxer in adulthood. He finds the latter hobby far more lively and exciting than working in a cubicle, and so, over the wishes of Mary Anne (who remembers how Apollo died in the ring), he quits his job and heads to Philadelphia to become a professional boxer, training under his father's old friend Rocky Balboa (do I need to say who plays him?). Before long, he's winning in the ring, and it soon comes out that "Hollywood" Donnie Johnson is the son of Apollo Creed. Not only does the revelation that Apollo fathered a love child with a woman other than his wife tarnish the man's reputation, Donnie finds himself thrust into the public spotlight, and before long, he's challenged by "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, an English boxer with a bad-boy reputation who's set on retiring soon and wishes to have his last fight with him. As Donnie sets out preparing for the biggest fight of his life, with his new neighbor and girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in his corner, Rocky is forced to confront his own advanced age and failing health.

This is a movie that takes a bit of time to really get good. For the first thirty minutes or so, it felt somewhat adrift, only really coming together once Donnie meets Rocky. It kind of makes sense thematically, as Donnie himself early on is a man who doesn't really know what to do with his life, but it makes for a fairly slow opening. Fortunately, once the action moves to Philly, this transforms into a very good movie, punctuated by moments where it briefly attains greatness. If you've seen any of the Rocky movies, you won't be surprised at how the plot plays out: Donnie is the new Rocky, Rocky himself is the new Mickey, and Bianca is the new Adrian, and it's very clear that the decision to stick to formula was deliberate. None of that, however, affects the quality of how the story is told. Ryan Coogler does a great job behind the camera, bringing to life the gritty streets of Philadelphia and the manic, high-pressure environment of the ring in a series of high-quality montages and fight scenes. The action is rough-and-tumble, a grueling battle of wills between two men trying to beat the living crap out of one another.

This standard of quality extends to the writing. Conlan isn't as memorable a rival as Apollo Creed or Ivan Drago, but the film isn't about him. Rather, it's about Donnie, and his journey to follow in the footsteps of his father and shoulder the weight of his legacy. It's an apt metaphor for the film itself, which seeks to uphold and continue the legacy of the Rocky films, and is filled with all manner of shout-outs ranging from the turtle to use of "Gonna Fly Now" to the final scene on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rocky is just as important as Donnie in this story, as the man passing the torch to his young protege, and they both get roughly equal time to develop as characters. While Donnie has his eyes on the future in front of him, Rocky is very much focused on the past, and with his health failing, he knows he doesn't have much time left. What it becomes in his case is a decision of whether he's gonna let fate decide how long he has to live. Just as he trains Donnie for the big fight with Conlan, Donnie has to convince Rocky that he still has one more fight left in him: the fight to keep on living. Stallone and Jordan are both great in these roles, bringing their own images and baggage to them. Stallone continues his latter-day career renaissance with a performance that's unmistakably him (his Philly accent seems to have gotten even thicker) but still intense and memorable, while Jordan, the hyped-up rising star himself, brings his youth, intensity, and hunger for the big time. The folks around them are no slouches, either; while I could've stood for a bit more focus on Phylicia Rashad and Tessa Thompson as Donnie's mother Mary Anne and girlfriend Bianca, especially in the slower-paced earlier parts of the film, the both of them still impressed me. Some of the subplots (like the reveal of Apollo Creed's infidelity casting a dark cloud over his legacy) felt extraneous and weren't all that well-resolved, but given the strength of the central plot, I was able to forgive it.

The Bottom Line:

By the end of this film, the general opinion of the crowd watching Donnie fight is that while he isn't his father, he's still a rising star with the potential to be. Their assessment of the protagonist mirrored what I thought of the film itself. It's not great yet, but it's a contender, and the Creed series that's clearly in the works definitely has the potential to continue on to greatness. If you're a fan of feel-good sports movies, this is definitely one of the better ones.

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