Wednesday, December 16, 2015

“Creed” Recaptures the Rousing Magic of the Original “Rocky”

Sylvester Stallone hands the franchise off to an up-and-comer in Creed.
The Rocky and Star Wars franchises are very different beasts, but it's amazing how, nearly 40 years into their lifespans, they seem to be riding along the same trajectory. Both started as passion projects for their creators before emerging as undisputable cultural touchstones. And, after devolving into mediocrity, both series have reemerged here in 2015 with original cast members passing the baton to new stars. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed are each the seventh film in their respective franchises, and yet, oddly enough, both films are the first in their series in which the driving force isn't the original creator but instead a total unabashed fanboy.

Expectations are sky high for J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the stakes are clearly a lot bigger for him than they were for Ryan Coogler, writer-director of Creed. But if Force Awakens can even sort of do for Star Wars what Creed does for Rocky, well, Abrams and most film fans on the planet will be tremendously happy.

 Like Abrams' own Star Trek films or Noah Hawley's Fargo series, Creed is somehow both a loving piece or fan fiction and a great piece of entertainment in its own right. The plot intentionally mirrors that of the original Rocky -- a longshot underdog given an out-of-nowhere shot at the title based solely on his name is coached up by a reluctant old-timer and romances a local cutie -- while offering numerous nods to its increasingly bombastic sequels. A naysayer could say it's a mere retread mixed with elements of The Color of Money, but Coogler simultaneously embraces and subverts cliché, bringing a fresh feel to a familiar self-worth narrative.

Observe his clever spin on the training montage or the way he viscerally films each boxing sequence (one in a single take, another with multiple behind-the-head-shots that evoke a video game), and that becomes obvious. But it really helps that he's created a hell of a role for his Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan, who undergoes a startling body transformation to portray boxing hopeful Adonis Johnson, the bastard son of Rocky nemesis-turned-friend Apollo Creed. Adonis is a rarity in a Hollywood film -- a young, complex black man. He's cocky and timid, charming and infuriating, weak and strong. It's the type of role that Tom Cruise played when he was younger and that almost nobody gets to play now, and it just really works within the Rocky construct.

Having never met his father -- he died in the ring before the boy was even born -- Adonis feels compelled to follow in his footsteps. This is despite the fact that he's an educated man with choices thanks to Apollo's widow Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad), who plucked him out of the foster system after his mother died to raise him as her own. Mary Ann obviously doesn't condone his desire, and neither does the LA boxing community, forcing the self-taught Adonis to travel south of the border to engage in back-room bouts to get his fix. When that's no longer enough, he heads for Philly to track down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stall
one) and get some professional training.

From there, the movie feeds you a lot of what you'd expect from a Rocky movie -- training montages, heart-on-sleeve monologues, health scares, inspirational music -- but it also lands some unexpected haymakers. There's the affecting romance with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a deaf musician who is refreshingly living her own, three-dimensional life beyond the life of her beau.

But the biggest one comes courtesy of humbly powerful performance from Stallone, an actor who was compared to Brando when he arrived in the original Rocky but is mostly, deservedly, a punch-line. His performance here ranks with the best he's ever given -- right alongside the original Rocky and Cop Land -- and the Oscar talk swirling around him is well-founded. Stallone has allowed his iconic presence to do most of the heavy lifting over the last few decades, but here, he and Coogler wield that status like a surgical knife, using it to elevate the performance while also layering in the kind of gravitas, feeling and honesty you can only bring to a role when it has bled so fully into your own life and vice versa.

Creed is formulaic and manipulative, but satisfyingly so. Like last year's Guardians of the Galaxy, Creed is the type of film that is just so enthusiastically hitting all the right notes, that none of that stuff registers as a detraction. Coogler deftly handles everything, getting us to care about these people, and then getting us to root for them. Anyone who knows good Rocky movies from mediocre Rocky movies knows how things will end, but it doesn't matter. In the final round, when Coogler follows the film's best dramatic moment by finally allowing a few bars of Bill Conti's famous theme to play, it's just utter perfection, the kind of movie magic that every film yearns for but so few achieve. A