Saturday, December 05, 2015
The very existence of Creed is as unlikely as Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson, and the film itself is a bracing left turn for a franchise that has always stood outside of the discussion about Hollywood’s love of a sure thing,. Rocky came out in 1976, but the Oscar-winning original (Best Picture and Director; Sylvester Stallone received nominations for acting and writing) is neither part of the narrative of that decade’s outsider cinema nor remembered as an early blockbuster in the manner of Jaws. Creed arrives almost a decade after Rocky Balboa seemed to mark the series’ end, and the new film is a tribute both to the imagination of cowriter/director Ryan Coogler and to Sylvester Stallone’s willingness to get out of the way. Adonis Johnson is bounced around inside the foster system as a boy after his mother dies; we first see him in 1998, brawling with another boy and being placed in solitary confinement. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) is Adonis’s lone visitor; she adopts the boy and tells him the truth. Mary Anne is the widow of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed and Adonis is his son, the product of an affair.
In 2015, Adonis (played as an adult by Michael B. Jordan) is restless despite a comfortable life and a good job in Los Angeles. He fights in Tijuana but the trainer (Wood Harris) at his father’s old gym doesn’t want him in the ring with real contenders. It’s when Adonis moves to Philadelphia that Creed really begins. He seeks out a reluctant Rocky Balboa as a trainer and begins the committed life of a champion-in-training. The affection and specificity with which Ryan Coogler portrays the insular Philadelphia boxing community is my favorite thing about Creed. The gyms that Adonis trains at are differentiated in detail, with Rocky’s gym being of course the more authentic and down-at-the-heels. Rocky Balboa is known wherever he goes in his city, and Sylvester Stallone gives a warm, self-effacing performance that suggests a physically powerful man in the autumn of his life. Rocky dispenses a lot of wisdom in Creed, and Stallone has the gift of making each maxim seem like a new thought. Coogler found more than a match for Stallone in Michael B. Jordan, with whom he worked in the auspicious Fruitvale Station. Jordan is cast in that film and often in his television work (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) as man whose demons threaten to overtake him, and that’s the case here too. The physicality- Jordan is more than believable as a boxer - and commitment the role demands erase any thoughts of repetition though, and Coogler and Jordan even pull off a sequence in which Adonis leads a group of bikers through the streets in a kind of aria of self-definition. The flashes of playfulness and vulnerability that Adonis does show with his musician girlfriend Bianca (strong Tessa Thompson) are welcome. Bianca, a woman with her own life and concerns outside of her relationship, is a complement to Adonis and not just a cheerleader. She’s the girlfriend that he - and the film - both need and deserve.
Creed presents a rich world, but it’s also operating within the superstructure of the sports film. Coogler tries to his best to leap past all the exposition about why the current champ (Tony Bellew) would want to fight Adonis, but those scenes serve as drag on a movie that runs over 2 hours. As much as Michael B. Jordan is physically right for the role of a top-flight boxer, the training scenes don’t suggest that Adonis has the ability to do anything more than out punch an opponent who’s more than a physical match for him. Rocky can (maybe) make Adonis a champion, but does he really have the stuff of a great fighter? More importantly, the anger and ambivalence that Adonis feels about the name “Creed” don’t entirely track given that the Creed family took him in and that Apollo didn’t exactly leave his family by choice. The chip on the shoulder that Adonis has to have for motivation, the one that has caused him to act out both as child and adult, is a note that Creed keeps coming back to without providing any more context.
Creed ends with a shot of two men looking into a future that, despite their abilities, is still one circumscribed by luck and the limits of the sphere in which they move. It’s an honest end for a 2015 film that delivers most of what it promises and that always looks out for the underdog.