Wednesday, December 2, 2015

True Blood: Deeply satisfying "Creed" reinvigorates old formula with fresh angle

Creed (2015)
133 min., rated PG-13.

1976's "Rocky" still remains the quintessential underdog story, and some may have to be reminded that it's actually not as formulaic as one might remember (spoiler: the Italian Stallion loses to ring opponent Apollo Creed). The five sequels—1979's "Rocky II," 1982's "Rocky III," 1985's "Rocky IV," 1990's "Rocky V" and 2006's "Rocky Balboa"—were all pretty much variants on the same narrative beats and training montages leading up to the third-act bout, and yet they knew how to be crowd-pleasers. Somehow, the seventh entry (also a spin-off) finds its own angle into the canon that not only feels fresh but reinvigorated. It's a clear testament to the auspicious re-teaming of indie filmmaker Ryan Coogler and on-the-rise actor Michael B. Jordan, who both made a splash with 2013's unforgettably stirring "Fruitvale Station," that "Creed" works as well as it does and resonates as a deeply satisfying, from-the-heart entertainment.

Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of boxing legend Apollo Creed (once played by Carl Weathers) who was born after his father's death. After being in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention in Los Angeles, he was visited and eventually adopted by Apollo's wealthy, compassionate widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), raising him into a smart young man with a white-collar finance job. Naturally, a promotion can't even keep Adonis in L.A. when he has the promise of being a full-time fighter in his blood. Having some wins under his belt from boxing in a Tijuana ring, the self-taught boxer heads to Philadelphia and looks up his father's former opponent-turned-best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who's still retired, managing an Italian eatery called Adrian's, and visiting the headstones of his beloved wife and crotchety brother-in-law Paulie in a folding chair to read the newspaper aloud. Adonis wants Rocky to train him, and once the old Italian lets go of his reluctance, he proceeds to whip Lil' Creed into shape at his former gym. Hoping to step out of his father's shadow, Adonis doesn't want to fight under the Creed namesake; he would rather build his own legacy.

Written and directed by Ryan Coogler and co-written by Aaron Covington, "Creed" does not just go through the motions but actually resuscitates the age-showing series with heart, passion and grit. Sure, the formula is still set in motion: Adonis has his own "Adrian" when he meets neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a nightclub singer with progressive hearing loss; he meets his rival in Liverpudlian heavyweight champ 'Pretty' Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew, a real pro boxer); and Adonis' athletic process is seen in several montages (one training session even includes chasing a chicken). The boxing scenes are unexpectedly thrilling and mounted with such adrenaline-pumping intensity to allow the viewer to share every hard, brutal blow that Adonis feels. The choices Coogler and his director of photography, Maryse Alberti, make behind the camera are fluid, dynamic and audacious; an early match is covered in one uninterrupted take, floating around the ring and getting face to face with gloved fist to flesh. Ludwig Göransson's score takes the recognizable strains of Bill Conti's original theme ("Gonna Fly Now") and layers them with urban hip-hop beats, a refreshing combination of old and new. Finally, the production design of the South Philly streets feels nothing short of lived-in, with the real Rocky statue near the Museum of Art steps a great addition to the series.

Showcasing his formidable swagger and charisma and securing one-to-watch status after his breakthrough role in "Fruitvale Station," Michael B. Jordan's talents are never in doubt, proving he can survive the critical and financial flop of big-studio superhero reboot "Fantastic Four." As Adonis Creed, Jordan is excellent, bringing credible guts to the ring and considerable heft outside of it. He conveys enough layers to ground the potentially too-hotheaded character and make him a distinct person rather than a racially switched copy-and-paste version of Rocky. Though the film is absolutely Creed's journey, his co-stars are all standouts who leave impacts. With Sylvester Stallone owning the character of Rocky Balboa for nearly forty years and now filling the sort-of role of Burgess Meredith's Mickey, he gets to actualize a mentor-mentee, father-son relationship with Adonis that never feels contrived but affectionate and not always uncontentious. It's bittersweet to find Rocky back in his old stomping grounds, getting older and not being able to share the rest of his wife with Adrian, Paulie, or even his adult son Robert who has his own family in Vancouver, but training his old friend's son gives him a sense of purpose and perhaps redemption. In what may be his most well-tuned performance in ages, Stallone endears and goes out with grace, navigating a personalized arc that feels full and resonant, particularly for those who have been rooting for Rocky from the start. Fortunately, Tessa Thompson ("Dear White People," "Selma") does not get saddled with a dishrag love interest role without personal interests or challenges outside of being her boxer boyfriend's cheerleader. She's terrific in bringing life to Bianca, a fully formed part that also must have been written with care, and Thompson conjures up loads of heat with Jordan to flesh out a sweet relationship that's hard not to deeply care about. Phylicia Rashad also makes every one of her scenes count, eternally lovely as Mary Anne Creed who doesn't want to see Adonis end up dead in the ring.

There are only so many variations on the same boxing-drama saga that one can tell, but "Creed" never feels like a cynical repackaging or the product of a studio decision. With equal amounts of crowd-pleasing accessibility and actual artistry, director Coogler overcomes the odds by punching out the dried-up clichés and giving the proceedings a texture and immediacy as if this type of story is being told for the first time. Although Sylvester Stallone neither wrote nor directed, his physical presence is completely vital to the passing of the torch; besides, he knows the underdog nature of this story more than anyone. The film is headed toward a comfortably familiar plot trajectory, but the subtle, more emotionally intimate moments are so authentically handled before the rousing final bout that one just has to succumb hook, line, and sinker. Dripping of the blood, sweat and tears of a true fighter, "Creed" stands on its own with the same stand-up-and-cheer spirit as its 39-year-old forefather.

Grade: A - 

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