Thursday, November 26, 2015

CREED Is a Winning Continuation of the Rocky Legacy

 CREED Review:

- Movies like CREED shouldn't really exist. It sounds like fan fiction - something that friends might dream up over a spirited movie discussion. What if the Rocky franchise spun out into a story about the son of Apollo Creed? What if Rocky Balboa assumed the Mickey role? What if the entire Rocky saga came full circle, giving birth to something new and awesome? I mean, this is the kind of stuff that *never* happens in movies. Franchises are supposed to go down in flames thanks to terrible sequels or cash-grab reboots. That's what happens. And yet ... there is CREED. Here is a film that opens up the Rocky franchise for a new generation, yet pays total respect to what's come before. This is a film about legacy, and yet it is, in and of itself, one of the best-ever examples of film-franchise legacy done right. CREED is a great boxing movie, a great character drama, and one hell of a Rocky movie. It's a minor miracle.

I remember hearing about the genesis of CREED a few years back ... the director and star of the buzzy indie drama Fruitvale Station approached Sylvester Stallone with a pitch for a Rocky spin-off about Apollo Creed's son - and, perhaps surprisingly, Stallone said "yes." After seeing the excellent Fruitvale Station, I was instantly excited. Director Ryan Coogler was clearly a real-deal talent behind the camera, and star Michael B. Jordan had all the ingredients to be a huge star. Jordan's performance in Fruitvale was fantastic, and I couldn't wait to see what he'd do in CREED. My expectations were doubly high after the shockingly great Rocky Balboa resuscitated the Rocky franchise several years earlier. That movie reignited my love for all things Rocky, and it's still to this day a huge comfort-food film, a movie with the kind of iconic speeches and adrenaline-pumping montages that will live on forever.

The minor miracle is that CREED is every bit as good as its pedigree suggests, and it not only continues the series momentum of Rocky Balboa, but builds upon it - delivering an absolutely rock-solid film that deserves to be talked about in the same breath as the original (and Oscar-winning) Rocky.

Michael B. Jordan does great work as Donnie Johnson - born Adonis Creed - the product of an affair that the late Apollo had prior to his death. Donnie grew up never having known his father, except by reputation - and he grew up in a rough-and-tumble adoptive care system until Creed's wife Mary Anne finds him and takes him in, raising him as her own. From that point on, Donnie grows up in luxury in LA. He goes to college and works in an office, but he isn't happy or fulfilled. The legacy of Apollo haunts him - and so he travels to Mexico to fight, living a double life. Finally, he quits his job and decides to pursue fighting full time. Donnie goes to Philly and tracks down Rocky Balboa, begging the former champ to train him.

Jordan helps make Donnie into a multifaceted, easy-to-root-for character. He's quick-tempered, but he's also a nice guy. It takes him a while to find some of his dad's confidence and flair. At first, especially, he's quiet - even nervous - trying to prove to himself that he even belongs in the same profession that his dad once dominated. Jordan does a remarkable job of making Donnie into a character that feels grounded and real, but that we can get behind when the big moments come.

And of course, those big moments have added dramatic weight thanks to the large-looming presence of Stallone's iconic Rocky Balboa. This is very much a "passing of the torch" movie, but Rocky's role isn't just to cameo. There is some full-on Rocky-related drama here. This is a Rocky who is now more alone than ever - his wife and friends are mostly gone, and his son lives in Canada and is only sporadically in contact. This is a Rocky who lacks a purpose - who, frankly, isn't sure why he's even still hanging around. Rocky is initially reluctant to take Donnie under his wing, but the arc of the movie (this being a movie about legacy), is one in which Rocky realizes that his fight is not yet over ... even if the fight he now faces can't be fought or won in a ring. Stallone has always done his best acting as Rocky, and he really, really crushes it here. Stallone has always had a way of fully inhabiting Rocky, of slipping into this character in a way that feels so natural that it sometimes blurs the line between reality and fantasy. The problem has just been that, occasionally, the material that Stallone has to work with isn't truly Rocky-worthy. But here, Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington give Rocky some real knockout stuff - and Stallone rises to the occasion. Viewers who have never seen a Rocky movie will still get a lot out of CREED, but fans who have been with the series since the original will get an extra something special out of the way that this film so elegantly and movingly brings Rocky's story into a new phase.

And man, this really does feel like it could be the beginning of something new and awesome. Jordan and Stallone have a great dynamic, and it's one I'd love to see more of. There's also a strong addition to the cast in Tessa Thompson as Bianca, Donnie's love interest - but also a well-drawn character in her own right who has her own battles to fight. All the pieces are in place for CREED to blossom into its own thing and build its own strong cinematic foundation.

Still, the familiar elements of Rocky are there in CREED's DNA. Some of the major story beats - as well as aesthetic touches, like training montages and the iconic Bill Conti score - are there and are used extremely well. But Coogler also makes sure that this is his own spin on an iconic franchise. I recognized certain visual flourishes from his work on Fruitvale Station - and the film's fight scenes in particular feel new and different versus other Rocky movies. Coogler gets the camera in close, weaving it around and even between the fighters - helping to create visceral, brutal-feeling fights that put the viewer right in the middle of the action. Coogler still makes sure to include the big cinematic moments that are a trademark of Rocky fight scenes, but he does it with his own unique visual style. He does a hell of a job - crafting fight scenes that make you wince at the hard-hitting action even as they make you cheer for our hero. And I mean cheer. Like the best of the Rocky films, CREED will make you jump out of your seat and fist-pump. Emotions run high. That said, I'm not sure that CREED has some of the mic-drop, "oh-damn" speeches or emotional highs of Rocky Balboa. In some ways, this is a quieter movie - but then again, we don't yet have as much history with Donnie as we did with Rocky in the character's last outing. I'm willing to give it time. And this film's final scene - a quiet but note-perfect moment - is so great that you can't help but give the film credit for going out in the absolute best way possible - in a way that, unique to CREED, is less about the big win and more about the smaller, quieter victories.

But CREED is a big win. Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone nail it - and in turn they give movie fans the kind of story that is so rare, but so supremely satisfying - a story that keeps going not because it has to, but because new generations can find inspiration and hope from something that inspired them, that made them want to keep the torch burning. CREED preaches the mantra of "One step. One punch. One round." And there is wisdom in that. But what the film also shows us is how those moments, ultimately, add up to a fight, to a win, to a life, and to a legacy. CREED hits hard.

My Grade: A-

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