Saturday, 5 December 2015

Creed: Worth the hype

The last time I watched a Rocky movie was almost a decade ago. While I really liked the first movie, it's never been a franchise that stuck with me. Kinda like the Rambo movies -- after First Blood, they just turn into increasingly cartoonish repetitions of the same underdog story. They forget where they started.

Ryan Coogler is a genius. That's the only word I can use to describe how he made me feel during this movie. Somehow Creed managed to make me care about these characters and world in a way I never have. I don't care about Rocky, Paulie or Adrian, and yet every time this movie evoked the series' past, I was a broken man. There was this one moment where Adonis takes out Apollo's stars'n'stripes shorts which almost made me tear up. What the hell is with this movie? Anyway, let's get into it.

The story is fairly simple. Adonis Johnson is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. Born after his father's death, he spent years going through foster homes and juvie centres, until he is given a second chance after Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) finds him. Searching for purpose, he has become a fighter in underground bouts in Mexico while sleepwalking through a desk job. Obsessed with becoming a professional boxer, he leaves his comfortable life to go to Philadelphia and build himself into a true fighter. To do this, he seeks out a reluctant Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him...

On paper, this synopsis sounds dopey and cliched as heck. And to be honest, if you want to be cynical, it is basically the same template from Rocky. There are a few nods to the previous movies (and I'm sure I missed plenty of others), but Coogler and his collaborators have done a marvellous job of making this movie feel like its own beast. The filmmakers clearly love this franchise and take great care to enliven all of the tropes and conventions of the typical sports movie. The way he does this is through character. That's what made the first movie great in the first place, and Creed spends every second of its 2 and a half hour runtime making you care about these people and their problems (if you are worried about pacing, don't worry. This thing flew by).

Michael B. Jordan continues his impressive run of performances with Adonis. Impulsive and even tempered, mature and childish, this is a character filled with contradictions and Jordan makes you believe every one of them. Even though his arc echoes some familiar moves from the first movie, the characters are so distinctive it never becomes an issue.

While Jordan is great as the young Creed, he is more than matched by his co-stars.

Tessa Thompson plays Bianca, Donny's neigbour who becomes his love interest. She's a singer with deteriorating hearing. Unlike Adrian, she will not give Donny an inch and stands up to him. She's a fully fleshed out person who has no illusions about her boyfriend's life. Together with Balboa, her relationship with Donny is the catalyst for his eventual growth. Like everything else in this movie, it is a familiar character type, but one lent a degree of nuance and complexity which elevates Bianca beyond the poor Adrian clone she could have been. Between this and Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, Thompson is definitely one to watch.

On the Sly front, can't say anything you haven't already heard. Stallone is terrific. I would not be surprised if he got some awards attention. Hopefully this inspires him to put aside the guns for awhile and make some more dramas. When the first Rocky came out, people thought he was going to be the next Brando. This performance should give him another shot at more character roles. It's that good.

On the technical front, everyone is talking about the long take of the first fight -- what's great about it is that you don't notice it for a long time. And unlike the opening salvo in Spectre, it is not designed to draw attention to itself -- it's all about following Adonis as he is put through the ringer in his first real bout. The choreography of the camera and the performers adds to this great sense of escalation as Adonis finds his feet (and his fists). It's great.

If you like Rocky already, you'll love it. If, like me, you don't have a lot invested, you'll enjoy it a lot. Maybe there will be a sequel. I hope not. This movie is great, and should be left to stand on its own. Irregardless, check this movie out.

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