Movie Review: Creed (2015)

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Sylvester “Sly” Stallone’s original Rocky (1976) was a full embodiment and genre pioneer of the inspirational sports drama; a blend of iconic imagery, underdog truisms, and a piercing populist charm to the heart that has always made for a rousing crowd-pleaser of a film. On and off the screen it was a tale of unwavering determination against impossible odds, ultimately taking its infectious popularity to an improbable Oscar win against a slew of arguably superior films, including Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, and Sidney Lumet’s Network. However, over the span of thirty years, the film series’ rise-and-fall over the course of six films has been well documented and criticized—from the humble startup to grandiose ‘80s spectacle to laughable irrelevance in the admirable folly that was Rocky Balboa (2006). The series ended seeming exhausted of ideas, so it was fair to think that any attempt at continuing the chronicle of Rocky—which even sole creator and undeniable franchise opportunist Stallone expressed his own doubting sentiments at continuation—would seem like blatantly cynical brand opportunism. Well those initial doubts can be set aside, because 29-year-old writer/director Ryan Coogler has fashioned a remake of spirit and not of imitation in Creed, a film that extends, deepens, and continues the franchise with refreshing vigor, poignant revelations, and crowd-pleasing sentiment. Certainly the film follows the formulaic path of it’s often times replicated predecessor, but in the hands of Coogler—an already skillful and manipulative director for his second feature—the film carefully balances the line between synthetic recreation and glorious tribute, always slanting towards the latter. In avoiding all of the potential missteps, errors, and disasters that haunt most remakes, franchise extensions, and spin-offs, Creed becomes an enthralling piece of commercial entertainment that proves it’s the most deserving to exist of all the Italian Stallion’s film successors.

It’s rather surprising that Coogler chose to take up the mantle in bringing a revitalized life to a venerable yet battered franchise, especially since it’s directly following his provocative debut feature Fruitvale Station (2013)—a sobering, self-assured, and personal reflection on the black experience in America. One would expect the young, meditative director would choose a project that continued his emotional and thought-provoking sensibilities, instead of a commercial film that has all the elements of predictability: the heart-filled underdog; the reclusive legend faded from glory into loneliness; a typical David vs. Goliath showdown. However, Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington’s script has a playful self-awareness towards the boxing movie formula and its inevitable clichés, which suggests a lifelong passion for the franchise’s lore that reveals itself in notable details, references, and homages to the original films. Attacking the pugilism genre’s formula with grit and determination has allowed Creed to be viewed through a rather refreshing prism, as it focuses on a complex new protagonist Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan)—the extramarital offspring of Rocky’s legendary rival turned inevitable friend, Apollo Creed. Adonis yearns for acceptance on his own self-determination, as he struggles to either deny or embrace the legacy of the father he never knew. The dichotomies and layers are endless within Adonis: he’s the product of unknown origins and haunted by renowned heritage; he’s the equal measurement of early juvenile wanderings and adopted privileged; and though he fights mostly for personal acceptance, he yearns for others’ recognition. It’s a risky endeavor to remove the limelight from Rocky, change the protagonist’s underclass sympathies, and approach the underdog narrative from a different angle, but Coogler and Covington’s mixture of character ingenuity and thoughtful nostalgia is what makes Creed a worthy, and needed, extension of the Rocky universe.

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And even though Rocky isn’t the narrative focus within Creed, his presence looms gracefully over Adonis’ transformation from eager brawler into a refined boxing spectacle, as he adopts the genre’s essential role as the crotchety, aging trainer. It’s a cleverly developed filial dynamic that sees Rocky become the mentor, friend, and father figure he sought out in others, as he imbues his life lessons on the impressionable fighter that can be summarized in the theme repetition of the original Rocky (1976): prove to yourself first you’re capable and worthy of the ring, win or lose. This is the first time Stallone isn’t writing for the iconic Philadelphian boxing figure, and Coogler and Covington have added on some surprising layers that reflect on his loneliness and increasing sense of mortality. They’ve done a fantastic job recreating, through dialogue, Rocky’s marble-mouthed, laidback charm and have given Stallone the opportunity to find some emotional depth—through a melodramatic twist on illness and a message of overcoming existential surrender—to a character that had lost it throughout Stallone’s own simplistic writing and bombastic direction. But this film is driven solely by the talent, ferocity, and athleticism of Michael B. Jordan. Jordan hasn’t showcased any limitations to his talent throughout his career, which ranges from fully immersed physicality in the television series Friday Night Lights to helming Coogler’s first emotional feature, Fruitvale Station. In Creed, Jordan balances his frustrations in training, his charm and struggles with honesty in romance with musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and his devastation towards the potential loss of the only father figure he knows. He’s convincing as an underdog of expectation and a fighter of self-purpose, which is all one needs to generate the rousing sympathies that are essential to an inspirational sports drama. With Creed becoming the second of their collaborations, it seems Coogler and Jordan are developing quite the muse relationship that will allow them to tackle any project with pristine artistry.

Having showcased a great deal of artistic promise in his intimate portrait of Fruitvale Station, Coogler seems to be brimming with confidence behind the camera and increases his technical showmanship in Creed. Numerous sequences are judiciously planned utilizing long takes, especially a full two-round boxing match that’s breathlessly executed with one stunning take that brilliantly changes perspectives and enraptures you in every detail of the fight. Collaborating with cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler, Velvet Goldmine), Coogler’s direction becomes increasingly self-assured, as he captures intimate conversations and brutal violence with a beautiful delicacy that’s rarely seen amongst emerging talents. The final fight borders on homage to the original, but it has such a vibrant filmic quality that it’s completely enthralling and inspires reactionary cheer when that swelling of the Rocky theme begins to build. He even breathes refreshing new life into the eye-rolling cliché that’s the montage, giving the seemingly outdated attribute a masterfully crafted update through Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver’s editing that melds riveting music (a modern combination of hip-hop and Ludwig Göransson’s symphonic orchestrations), refreshing imagery, and a maintaining of our emotional investment in its progression. But first time filmmakers can often allow their lack of sense towards technical immoderation get the best of them. Occasionally the film minimally suffers from visual overindulgence, especially in some overproduced sequences that involve unnecessary slow-motion, some showy motorcycle stunts, and a ridiculous moment of fire breathing. That lavishness isn’t necessarily limited to the aesthetic of the film, considering some dialogue exchanges between Adonis and Rocky get a little melodramatic in their confrontations. Luckily these are only minor distracting moments in an otherwise invigorating cinematic display of visual confidence, emotional crescendos, and a phenomenal use of the original’s known iconography.

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Creed could have been a drastic misstep in the early career of Ryan Coogler; another promising talent lost immediately to the churning machine of depleted artistry known as Hollywood. But the young director’s uncompromising sense of ambition, strong characterization, and visual flair has continued from his first feature debut into his second feature, never allowing the conventions of the inspirational sports genre to minimize his potential for artistic filmmaking. Instead, Coogler has fashioned a comfortingly old-fashioned piece of populist entertainment that has a modernized sense of self—an update of setting, feel, and tone that equally embraces its chosen genre’s limitations, truisms, and familiar concepts. Creed might follow the original Rocky (1976) in all of its thematic precepts and plot directions—not to mention its barrage of comforting tropes and optimistic swooning—but it’s one of those rare remakes that embodies the spirit of the original as it taps into the seemingly lost art of bridging heartfelt art with the mainstream of entertainment (it actually can be done). Most remakes can’t justify their existence, but Coogler’s refreshing and passionate continuation of the Rocky franchise seems as though it’s the only logical and emotional deviation that should have ever occurred. Creed works as an unexpected emotional successor to the original franchise that began almost forty years ago, but its real accomplishment is serving as a loud confirmation of the talents of both director/writer Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan.

Grade: B+

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