Monday, December 7, 2015

ROCKY STILL PACKS A WALLOP IN “CREED”

Original caricature by Jeff York of Sylvester Stallone as the aging Rocky Balboa in CREED (copyright 2015)

You have to understand that I’ve never really loved ROCKY. I merely liked him. To this day, I am still miffed that in 1976 ROCKY was chosen Best Picture at the Oscars over the esteemed ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NETWORK and TAXI DRIVER. Yet, I freely admit ROCKY is a terrific film, and it certainly resonated more emotionally with the Academy than its tonally cooler competitors did. But none of that, nor its six sequels, prepared me for CREED. And how much I would enjoy it. And revere it too.

Quite simply, one could categorize the film as the 7th Rocky movie. There was ROCKY 1-V, then ROCKY BALBOA, and now CREED, which despite it using the namesake of Rocky’s most famous opponent Apollo Creed, is still a Rocky movie. But it is so much more than just another sequel. Instead, writer/director Ryan Coogler has done something damn near miraculous with it. He’s made a boxing film, let alone another Rocky boxing film, and managed to make it seem utterly fresh, vital, and even important. Coogler pulled off another significant miracle with it too. He coaxed a career best performance out of Sylvester Stallone in his seventh time playing the big palooka, and it may very well net the veteran actor an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor come February.

Lead Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, along with Stallone in support in CREED. 
How did Coogler do it? Well, for starters, he relegates Rocky to a featured role. Granted, a large featured role, but the focus of the film is Adonis Johnson, played with just the right amount of insolence and innocence by Michael B. Jordan. Adonis happens to be the bastard son born from one of Apollo Creed’s dalliances with a mistress. And he both resents the fact that he never got to know his father and was never acknowledged by him, and yet he still idolizes the incredible athlete his dad was in his heyday.

You’ll remember that Apollo Creed dies in ROCKY IV, so here, Adonis must turn to Rocky Balboa to not only stand in as his father figure, but to help him learn to fight like his old man too. The chip on Adonis’ shoulder isn’t too big, so it allows for a very rich and nuanced relationship with Rocky that’s at the heart of the story. Rocky is trying to genuinely mentor the young man, and throughout most of the movie, Rocky’s arc is essentially to help Adonis become a genuine pro.

Jordan with costar Tessa Thompson in CREED.

Adonis also gets a girlfriend in this film, but she’s not window dressing or just ‘the girl’ in the story, as is so often the case in these kinds of things. Instead, Bianca (as played by the wondrous Tessa Thompson) has her own story and her own talents. She’s a jazzy pop singer who writes her own songs and is on the verge of making it in the big time too. She's also dealing with her own demons, as she's starting to lose her hearing, but she's strong, and dealing with it a day at a time. That's a big theme in this movie. Taking things one step at a time. In fact, it's a line uttered more than once here. 

Her boyfriend Adonis takes the relationship slowly, and that's very admirable here, especially my movie standards that generally rush lovers into bed. But he respects her too much to just regard her as something that simple. He admires her beauty and sexiness, yes, but more importantly he is in awe of her talent and her maturity, and it’s amazing how many scenes are about his support and interest in her, about their relationship and not just how she supports his dreams. That’s another minor miracle unto itself here.

Coogler really showcase her music too. Thompson sings throughout and her songs are terrific. In fact, the whole mix of music, from rap to the underscore by Ludwig Goransson, is fantastic. Coogler is also interested in the periphery characters that fill out every scene. There’s an authentic feeling to all of them in this story, from the other boxers and trainers in the gym, to even the extras, like the guys working behind the counter at a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich shop.

The writer and director of FRUITVALE STATION really uses locations well here too, just like he did in his previous film which took place in Oakland. So much of CREED is shot on the street and it gives all of this an utter authenticity. Are there any scenes here shot on a soundstage in this film? It doesn't appear so. Even the big fight at the end is in a huge arena with thousands of extras. It may be special effects enhanced, but it doesn't feel like it.

Writer/Director Ryan Coogler. 
Coogler avoids all the minefield of clichés that mar boxing pictures so often, from someone dying in the ring to big-time losses for the  hero that challenge his standing and soul, to other Herculean obstacles. Instead, this film is very deliberate, practical, and plays realistically on all levels. It's one of the few boxing films, outside of David O. Russell's THE FIGHTER, that seems to be a truly honest and accurate exploration of what's involved in the demanding profession. 

That accuracy starts with the fact that Adonis is a great athlete already. He's not a colossal underdog. That wouldn't be realistic. The lead here is a naturally gifted athlete, a man who's in marvelous shape, and he has the drive and energy to make it as a  successful pugilist. No down-on-his-luck shmuck is he. Adonis' journey simply requires the hard work needed to have such a career. That, and channeling his anger into the ring and not outside it, of course. As Rocky tells him early, his opponent is the man in the mirror. An athlete stops himself. Their opponent doesn't. 

And what Coogler does with the Rocky character is truly the most spectacular part of the film. By now, we all know Rocky Balboa really well. But damn, if Coogler and Stallone don't find some new colors in the old guy. (SPOILER ALERT: The next lines are for those who haven’t read anything about CREED or have yet to see it. You’ve been warned.) It may have seemed maudlin at first to have Rocky come down with cancer this time out, but it deepens his sense of fighting alongside Adonis as he fights for legitimacy. It's a sharp addition to the narrative, and it's handled deftly and sensitively throughout the last third of the film.

Stallone as Rocky Balboa in CREED.
And the scene where Rocky is given the news about his condition by the doctor may very well be the moment that solidifies the Oscar gold for Stallone. It is a weepy one, granted, but Coogler and Stallone give it a quiet stubbornness that is unexpected and utterly admirable. Stallone has been many things in his long career – Rambo, action hero, sullen action hero, engaging interviewee, aging expendable, and strapping body beautiful – but here, all he is is Rocky. And it’s a total, brilliant emersion. This Rocky is older and wiser, yet a man who's lost so much and it shows in every expression, gesture and move that Stallone makes onscreen here. 

Watching this movie, you can't help but feel emotional. It’s both reverential to the legacy of the previous films - Coogler throws in some choice ‘Easter Egg’ bits and references acknowledging the history of 40 years - but it's a very different take on the familiar. It's startling how fresh and effective it is. And it's one of the best films of the year.

Quite simply, CREED bowled me over. Granted, I still think ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN should’ve won Best Picture in 1976, but I won’t be surprised if this great sequel wins a few Oscars this time as well. In fact, I will cheer.

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