Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Creed



Ever since I saw this movie last week, I've been bursting to talk about it! While I haven't come to the end of my Rocky retrospective quite yet (I'll get to Rocky V and Rocky Balboa soon), I just had to talk about the movie I've been wanting ever since the first trailer was released. Despite my enthusiasm going into this, I had to remind myself that Creed wasn't on my top 10 most anticipated films of the year when I wrote that list eleven months ago. In fact, it didn't even get a mention, which I still have a hard time fathoming... Anyway, I went in with fairly moderate expectations, pretty much just hoping for a decent follow-up to the Rocky series. What I got was so much more.

Adonis Johnson is a troubled youth in a juvenile detention center, frequently getting into fight with the other adolescents. Having bounced from group home to group home, he's understandably apprehensive when an unfamiliar woman named Mary Anne Creed comes to the center to take him home. When she reveals that she was married to his father when he passed away, Adonis agrees to go home with the widow. Though he never met his father, perhaps the most famous boxer to ever live, Adonis (who goes by Donnie) grows up with the unshakable desire to make a name for himself in the ring, resorting to small, unsanctioned fights in Tijuana to hone his self-taught boxing skills. Given the tragedy of Apollo's death, his adopted mother isn't too pleased with Donnie's dream, and grudgingly allows him to leave home and move to Philadelphia. There, Donnie seeks out a trainer in the form of famed boxing legend, and close personal friend of his late father, Rocky Balboa...

Oddly enough, the first thing I was wondering about Creed was how it would begin. Each of the Rocky movies start with the title scrolling across the screen with an iconic theme song playing in the background. In what seems to be a representation of this movie as a whole, it has an opening that's character-building and unique to the series, while still having that distinct "Rocky" flavor. Donnie's first fight is a pretty rough environment, not unlike Rocky's opening bout with Spider Rico, and we get to see some of the raw talent that's waiting to be molded. What's most surprising about this, however, is that 48 hours later he's sitting in a fancy office in Los Angeles. Being raised on the immense fortune his father built, Donnie isn't a struggling, down-on-his-luck nobody like Rocky. He's an intelligent guy, who could easily build a life for himself without stepping into the ring.

This is just a small example of the interesting wrinkles Ryan Coogler injected into this story. Almost nothing in this film is obvious or generic, and there's a great deal of dimension and depth that we've rarely seen in a Rocky film. Each character has something that drives them, something they're fighting for or against. Perhaps the most impressive (and least expected) character trait was that of Bianca, who is a burgeoning musician suffering from a progressive hearing impairment. She could have just been a throw-away love interest that makes Adonis more relatable, but instead they make her an actual character that in turn adds extra layers to those with whom she interacts. We also get some insight into Mary Anne Creed's character, though explaining how might be a spoiler. There's also a lot of drama between Adonis and Rocky, as they actually get into some of the thornier aspects of the former champ's involvement in Apollo's death. All of this is indicative of a very smart script, fleshing out characters and refusing to take short cuts. Well done, Mr. Coogler.

Another thing that immediately stood out to me was the cinematography. That sounds weird to say, as there aren't any visual effects or impressive locations to show off, but what I'm talking about specifically is the camera work during the fights. Coogler brings us right into the action, putting us inches away from the fighters and often going for long stretches without any cuts. In fact, Donnie's first official match is filmed entirely in one take! It's incredibly orchestrated, and even more impressive to me than the opening scene of Spectre. There's a ton of artistic value in this film, and far more than people are probably expecting. With a tremendous script and exceptional footage, the only thing that would keep this from excelling would be underwhelming performances. Amazingly, the acting may be even better.

Michael B. Jordan is a star on the rise, with an Oscar-worthy performance in Coogler's previous film, Fruitvale Station. He's incredibly talented, and I'm so glad he got a role worthy of his abilities after the unfortunate flop that was Fantastic Four. When re-watching the previous Rocky films, I couldn't help but marvel at how similar Jordan and Carl Weathers look. They hit the lottery by not only getting a perfect looking Creed, but one that has legitimate acting chops. He nails the dramatic moments, and also gives us a hero to root for with charisma and impressive fighting skills that is eerily reminiscent (but not too much) of Apollo himself. Really, all of the performances here are great, but perhaps the most surprising is Sylvester Stallone. He absolutely nails this part, which is a much different role than he's played in previous films. His emotion is genuine, and his aging frailty completely believable. But perhaps most importantly, his chemistry with Michael B. Jordan is absolutely perfect. We get fully involved in their relationship, and there are plenty of tear-jerking moments as a result. People have been saying a Best Supporting Actor nomination isn't out of the question, and I couldn't agree more.

The last thing I'll talk about is Creed's place among the Rocky films. To me, it's flawlessly portrayed as a worthy successor to the series, while not leaning too heavily on the iconography of what came before. For example, there are no gratuitous uses of the iconic "Gonna Fly Now" song, but the new score - which is brilliant, I might add - pays tribute to that legendary music while also doing its own thing. I was a little worried about an over-reliance on the familiar Rocky tropes, but also feared that we would get too modern with an abundance of rap music that took me out of the movie. Thankfully, they got the balance just right, and I can't wait to buy this score when it comes out.

Seriously, I have no complaints about this movie. I walked in expecting to see a passably entertaining film, and walked out thinking I'd just seen the best movie of the year so far. Creed is a fantastic film, for all of the reasons that I've stated above. Everyone should be able to enjoy this movie, but if you're a Rocky fan, you're going to absolutely love it. The subtleties of the script and the cleverness of the call-backs made this so much more than a spin-off to a previously successful series. It's a wonderful update to the series, while paying homage to what made it great in the first place. I couldn't be more impressed with Creed, and I'm giving it a strong four stars. Go see it in the theater so you can experience the "stand-up-and-cheer" moments with a group of fans. "Creed is a knockout!" (Prepare to hear that from every critic in the world.)

CREED is rated PG-13 for violence, language, and some sensuality