Sunday, December 13, 2015

GONNA FLY NOW: a review of "Creed"

Based upon characters created by Sylvester Stallone
Story by Ryan Coogler
Screenplay Written by Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington
Directed by Ryan Coogler
**** (four stars)

There is not one reason in the world for there to be another anything related to the cinematic life of the "Italian Stallion" himself, Rocky Balboa. That being said, "Creed," Co-Writer/Director Ryan Coogler's kinetic, perceptive, enormously entertaining, moving and downright sensational entry into the on-going saga heroically rises to the challenge and becomes the finest installment since 1979.

For a character that has been so beloved by fans--the earnest, pure-hearted underdog, the battered, bruised but never broken lovable palooka Rocky Balboa--it has often boggled my mind that his longevity has remained s powerful, especially as he has been so under-served by his own movies. Of course, the original, Oscar winning 1976 film, written by series creator and star Sylvester Stallone and directed by John Avildson, is a veritable classic that deeply touched a populist nerve during the turbulent 1970's, but aside from the strong "Rocky II" (1979), the series essentially took a regular joe armed with the deepest of tenacity (and a powerful punch) and transformed him into something superhuman, and therefore unrelatable.

Yes, "Rocky III" (1982) was highly entertaining but that was indeed  the film in which Rocky began to become a bloated cartoon version of himself. The odious jingoism of "Rocky IV" (1985) only cemented the transformation from somewhat of an every-man into a Right-wing fantasy film flag waving icon. The less said about "Rocky V" (1990) the better and yet, only the understated grace of the most unlikely sixth installment "Rocky Balboa" (2006), which had our hero negotiating his elderly life without the love of his life by his side, returned the series to exploring human beings rather than the next opponent to vanquish inside the boxing ring.

With "Creed," the first installment not written or conceived by Stallone, Ryan Coogler certainly has a daunting task at hand by attempting to tackle this nearly 40 year cinematic legacy. But he too, like Balboa and now, the young boxing upstart Adonis Creed, is indeed the underdog made great as his creative ingenuity, plus his clear reverence for the character and series while merging that affection into his own uniquely crafted vision made for a film that nearly laid me flat with its superb execution.

Believe me dear readers, I have said more than I ever need to say decrying the lack of imagination in Hollywood and its over-reliance upon sequels, re-boots, re-imaginings and now superheros. But as Writer/Director George Miller proved victoriously with the brilliant "Mad Max: Fury Road" earlier this year, sequels and re-boots do not need to exist as soulless machines designed to pick our pockets. They can honor the past while injecting honest and ferocious vitality into moving familiar characters into new cinematic territories. Ryan Coogler's "Creed" sits triumphantly at the top of the heap.

"Creed" stars a visibly hungry and absolutely terrific Michael B. Jordan in the titular role of Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed who died in the boxing ring before Adonis' birth. After serving time in a youth facility where his anger and propensity for fighting is paramount, Adonis is soon taken in by Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) upon the passing of Adoinis' biological Mother. Over the following seventeen years, Adonis grows, is handsomely educated and finds himself in a fine corporate career with a promotion to boot, but he still finds himself unfulfilled and consumed with anger fueled restlessness, which leads to him becoming a somewhat seasoned lightweight boxer across the L.A. border in Mexico.

Soon quitting his job, Adonis moves from California to Philadelphia, adorns himself with a new secretive identity as "Donnie Johnson," begins a tentative romance with budding songwriter/musician Bianca (the captivating Tessa Thompson) and finally, tracks down the retired boxer/now restaurant owner Rocky Balboa (again played by Sylvester Stallone) to ask if he would train and mentor him as he pursues his path of becoming a full time fighter. Rocky, while gracious, politely refuses but of course, he finds himself warming to Adonis thus beginning a new relationship that forces both men to redefine their respective notions of family, confronting the fears and failures of life while always fighting the good fight one step at a time, one punch at a time.

Ryan Coogler, re-teaming with Michael B. Jordan after their richly humanistic work with the quietly devastating "Fruitvale Station" (2013), arrive at and approach the legacy of Rocky Balboa and now the new journey of Adonis Creed with the same serious attention to the emotional details that construct a life as they achieved with their previous effort. While all of the beats within the story will indeed ring familiar and in tremendous step with all that has been presented to us before, Coogler miraculously makes the proceedings of "Creed" feel as fresh as the very first time we all saw the original 'Rocky" by always keeping his attention to the characters and their predicaments at the forefront and never allowing any sense of spectacle overtake the film. Coogler presents a world that is appropriately gritty, lived in, and run down, a world that has truly seen better days but tries its best to continue moving forwards. Like Adonis himself, "Creed" is about paying homage to a legacy while also attempting to create a new legacy, and Coogler handles every momoent with class and empathy as well as urgency and passion.

I loved how Coogler weaved in the familiar story elements and iconography of the previous six "Rocky" films effortlessly and so organically that nothing felt to be forced.  In fact, I enjoyed how he took past plot points that for their respective films felt to be grandiose (almost to the point of parody) and burrowed them down to their most basic elements, thus making for a film that was often primal in it overall effect. We all know that Apollo Creed died at the hands of the evil, steroid addicted Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV," for instance. But in "Creed," Apollo's premature death is treated as intimate tragedy, therefore with a reality and gravitas that was absent from many of this series' installments.

In "Creed," Apollo's death is not a comic book plot point but an action that has left long term bruises for severeal of the film characters. A wife who lost the love of her life. An aging rival still dealing with regrets of actions not taken that could have maybe saved his life. And now, a son wrestling with issues of self-discovery, identity and determining precisely what is his place in the world. While Adonis Creed's journey does of course lead him into the boxing ring for a toe-to-toe trial by fire against the undefeated and possibly prison bound British bruiser, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the lightweight champion of the world (and in sequences that are beautifully filmed), the soul of "Creed" is not about the boxing match. The soul of "Creed" lies firmly within Adonis' existential struggle with figuring out precisely who he is within the world, within his chosen path, and within his own name.

Michael B. Jordan, a young actor I have watched since his stint on "All My Children" (where he was once a love interest for Amanda Seyfried), is a sight to behold as his imposing physical presence and smoldering intensity make him compulsively watchable in what I felt to be his star-making/breakthrough role. He owns the screen completely, fully nailing the vulnerability that is housed inside of his rage, the pain, hurt and fear that serves as his fuel to blaze his own path, despite the legend of his Father. While his physicality made for a fully convincing sight in the film's richly executed fight sequences, his coiled force is forever present in the film's many sequences of intimacy (like a very lovely moment as he is braiding Bianca's hair), to especially the heart of the film in which he and Rocky Balboa create a new version of family for themselves.

Sylvester Stallone has not been this natural, this loose, and this honestly affecting in many, many years. Whatever awards season attention he is and will continue to receive is deeply earned with this tender, urgent performance that fully reminds us about why we all fell in love with this character in the first place. It is a wonderful piece of work, filled with earned life lessons, subtle rhythms, deep affection and a level of generosity I would not have expected from him--especially so, as he has released the reins of his own creation to Coogler.

A scene of Rocky visiting the grave-sites of his beloved Adrian and now Paulie comment upon the passage of time, loneliness and mortality with a graceful melancholy, especially as we are meant to note that he is now the only surviving member of this series' core cast of characters. Beyond the echoes to the past, a new trial Rocky is forced to confront provides "Creed" with a newfound element of pathos that not only mirrors the film's primary storyline with Adonis but again injects a sense of realism the "Rocky" series abandoned for so much of its duration. And Stallone handles the entire performance with supple strength and skillful sensitivity, never once over-playing any moment or attempting to brandish the attention for himself. It is remarkable to see how through the act of letting go of his signature creation, Sylvester Stallone has surprised once again and climbed to even greater heights with his lovely performance.

I must make special notice of Tessa Thompson, who first made a powerful impact upon me in Writer/Director Justin Simien's "Dear White People" (2014). While the amount of her scenes are scant compared with those of her co-stars, and she is indeed relegated to the sidelines as the focus shifts to the climactic boxing match, I did deeplye appreciate her grounded, serious work that suggested a very detailed life that was not presented upon the screen. Her romance with Adonis, should there be a new installment, could heat up in most interesting and compelling ways, while also presenting audiences with that cinematic rarity: a young, attractive African-American couple in love. Even deeper is the character detail and trajectory of Bianca the musician as she deals with her progressive hearing loss. This avenue already provided the film's love story with yet another sense of urgency that fueles the narrative handsomely.

Ryan Coogler's "Creed" is possibly the most unlikely film that I have seen this year to have succeeded so highly. As entertaining as the film is, it is the sense of honesty and authenticity that makes the film soar. Any and all sense of contrivance has been stripped away leaving only a story about real people dealing with real emotions, conflicts and tribulations in a very real way. And in doing so, when those echoes to the past do arrive, there is a euphoria filled sense of recognition and release that proved to be intoxicating, ultimately providing a much needed sense of hope and perseverance during a time when so many have been pushed to the wall and into the water with little to cling to. Yet, like Adonis and like the elderly Rocky, with each solitary step, we may one day prevail.

By the time "Creed" reaches its conclusion, set in a familiar location, if you find yourself with a lump in your throat as the moment is sublimely poetic and poignant, do not be surprised. What is happily surprising, however, is how beautifully earned that lump in the throat actually is.

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