Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Creed: Going the Distance

Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in Creed.

Creed is a film about legacy: the legacy of legendary fighter Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), whose shadow perpetually looms over the life of his son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), and in a more meta sense, the legacy of the Rocky series, which has endured (despite several pitfalls) as one of cinema’s best and most inspiring character stories. Adonis – or Donnie, as he prefers to be called – must forge his own legacy, by both accepting his connection to his famous father and by earning his own place in the ring. So must director Ryan Coogler, in finding a way for his spinoff film to honour its pedigree while still standing tall on its own merit.

I’ll be clear: Creed is a triumphant success at making both sides of this story come to life. The setup is very simple, but has an irresistible hook. Adonis is the product of an affair between Apollo Creed and his mistress, born after Ivan Drago killed Apollo in the ring in Rocky IV. He bounces in and out of foster homes (and juvie) until Apollo’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) takes him in. As an adult, Donnie goes undefeated in underground bouts in Mexico, returning to his white-collar financial job to keep a roof over his head in Los Angeles. Immediately, it’s clear that he’s comfortable in neither environment – a child of two worlds who fights in dingy Mexican clubs because he is driven to, and lives in Apollo’s gold-encrusted mansion because he has to. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out what he needs to do: pack up his things and move to Philadelphia in search of his father’s rival, sparring partner, and long-time friend, Rocky Balboa, whom he hopes will train him. That’s the hook I was talking about: Apollo’s forgotten son is trained by Rocky, who becomes the new version of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey. Perfect, right?

The original Rocky wasn’t really about the Italian Stallion looking to win a title fight, it was about his search for a soulmate, finding one in Talia Shire’s Adrian, and the way the backdrop of Philly’s cold, grey streets and dingy apartments reinforced that lonely palooka’s quest. But Creed takes place in a very different Philly, more of a thriving cultural black underground than the industrial Italian neighbourhoods of Rocky’s youth. This is a small point, but it helps to reinforce the theme of legacy – it’s no longer Rocky’s Philadelphia, and it’s no longer his movie. This is Donnie’s show, and the Philly of Creed is more reflective of Donnie’s modern, ever-changing world.

So at its core, Creed is a film about characters, and this is what qualifies it as a worthy successor to the Rocky films. It rests on a trio of exceptional performances from Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, and Sylvester Stallone, who all turn in roles that are worthy of awards consideration. Jordan is totally magnetic as Adonis, pulling us along with his drive and ambition, giving him his father’s pride but less of the swagger. He’s a smart character who is also endearingly sweet, who chooses the life of a fighter deliberately and not out of desperation (in his own version of the well-earned “top of the steps” montage moment, which is appropriately very different from Rocky’s, your affection for his character hits a real fever pitch). Tessa Thompson plays his love interest Bianca, who pursues a career as a nightclub singer despite her progressive hearing loss. This character detail gives her a scope and depth I was not expecting, equipping her with hopes and dreams and a dark future looming ahead. It also makes her a perfect match for Donnie, who is also careening towards a path that will likely destroy him. Their scenes together are captivating and fun, and most notably, realistic.

Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in Creed.

It’s Stallone who really pulls the whole thing together, however, returning to his first (and best) role with the same gentle humility that defined Rocky in his original outing. His character is crucial to Creed’s story too, not only as a mentor and trainer, but as a coda to his own colourful past. There’s a sweet sadness to Rocky here: he’s lost his beloved Adrian, he’s lost his best friend Paulie, and he’s lost his estranged son. He’s living in the same row house he started in, and still toils in quiet solitude at the restaurant named for his bride. It was hard to contain the emotion I felt when he visited Adrian’s grave, pulling an old folding chair out of a nearby tree and sitting down to chat with Adrian (and Paulie, buried right next to his sister). In Creed, Rocky has nothing left, and seems like he’s simply waiting patiently and complacently to die. It takes the emergence of Apollo’s son to teach him that he still has fights yet unfought, and Stallone gives a performance so powerful it reminded me why he was once considered a wonderful actor. He still is, given the right material, and Rocky Balboa was truly the role he was born to play.

The main events hardly disappoint, either. Creed displays the best kind of cinematic storytelling in its use of bold and exciting camera techniques that never draw attention to themselves. Every scene is so strongly motivated by character and emotion that you’re never pulled out of the experience long enough to notice how brilliantly it’s being presented to you. The camera comes into the ring and floats fluidly around – and even between – the fighters, constantly building to a crescendo of intensity, but always keeping the focus on Donnie. Rocky tells him to win “one step at a time, one punch at a time, one round at a time,” a mantra that comes to describe the way the fights themselves are shot. You’ll watch the fights in this film on the edge of your seat, and the scene will be half over before you realize there hasn’t been a cut since it started. It’s thrilling and effortless filmmaking.

This strength of Coogler’s style isn’t restricted to the ring, though: everything in between is just as, if not more, important. Creed is a lean picture, with the extraneous elements sliced away like the five pounds Donnie sheds to meet the weight requirement for his first legitimate bout. Through a combination of strong visuals (the framing of Donnie and Bianca’s first kiss, for example – shot upside-down while they lie on her carpeted floor – is sweet and tender and unique) and judicious editing (as in the scene where they first meet, when Donnie tosses and turns in bed as her music blares through his floor, the cuts jumping us efficiently through his irritation), Coogler is able to excise all the tediousness that normally accompanies the familiar beats of a boxing movie (or any sports film, for that matter), delivering on the expected highs and lows of Donnie’s success and failure both in the ring and in life, without any of it feeling stale or boring. It’s a film with truly propulsive energy throughout.

I admit I had low expectations for Creed, given its spinoff status and the advancing age of the Rocky series. A cast full of relative unknowns, not to mention a wrinkly Rocky, compounded this feeling of unease. I’m happy to report that Creed not only exceeded my expectations, but knocked them flat to the mat, delivering one of the most satisfying, emotional, gut-punching films I’ve seen in ages. I felt the tears welling up during Donnie’s final fight, and I was nearly bawling by the end, with that unforgettable Bill Conti score ringing in my ears. Creed has the technical chops to match its predecessors, but most importantly, it also has the heart.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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