Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Creed ***1/2 (2015)

In Sylvester's Stallone's seventh appearance as Rocky Balboa the epic saga finally comes full circle. Like the original from 1976, Creed relies on old fashioned story telling to magnificent effect. Michael B. Jordan gives a star making performance and Stallone exudes wisdom and quiet strength as an aging Rocky.

I'll provide some backstory, although it's not essential at all to enjoying Creed.  In the first Rocky film (Best Picture Winner 1976) Rocky Balboa is a struggling professional boxer living on the gritty streets of Philadelphia, working as a loan shark on the side. When the reigning heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, based on real life Muhammad Ali, randomly selects Balboa as his next opponent (a previous boxer backed out) for a New Years Eve bout, Rocky gets one last chance to prove himself (the original had a great tagline "His Whole Life Was a Million To One Shot"). Rocky manages to "go the distance" with Apollo and the film ends on a soaring note.

In the string of sequels that followed, Rocky rises to become the Heavyweight champion, gets rich and famous, falls from grace, and is redeemed once again. In Rocky III, after being crushed by a younger and stronger opponent, Rocky's old adversary Apollo Creed trains him and they end up becoming best friends, only to have Creed tragically die in the ring in Rocky IV.

That's where Creed picks up.  Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Apollo who was taken in by Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad) and raised in privilege. Working as a business professional while moonlighting as a boxer in Mexico, Creed leaves a lucrative career to pursue boxing.  He journeys to Philadelphia to look up his father's old friend Rocky, who manages a restaurant.  At first reluctant, Rocky steps into the trainer/mentor role.

The script follows a similar course to the original film: there's a romantic subplot, the mentor and protege iron out their relationship, a young man finds his place in the world. There's humor and pathos, both done with dignity.  The boxing scenes, always a challenge for to put on film, are well shot and edited (minus the absurd sound effects from the previous fights in Rocky).

Ryan Cooglin, writer and director of Creed, coming off the impressive Fruitvale Station (2013), a film composed of poignant moments documenting the beauty and tragedy of everyday life, does much of the same with Creed.  I would not call Creed a "reboot", instead Cooglin crafted a movie well versed in series lore while pointing the way towards the future.

Boxing serves as such a great metaphor, proof of why the sport always makes for dramatic cinema.  There's more here on heroism and human emotion than any of those video game comic book extravaganzas.  Everyone must step into their own ring and fight their own battles. That's the underlying magic of Rocky and why those films will never fade away.

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