14 December 2015

First Impressions: CREED

This has already been an impressive year for seventh installments in film series, but there isn't another that matches Creed (2015)'s delicate balance of honouing what's come before while still striking out on its own. This is what Rocky Balboa (2006) or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), or even this year's Terminator: Genysis (2015) should have been. It features the iconic hero stepping into a role that actually makes sense while figuratively passing down the mantle to a new hero who embodies the core aspects of the character while also maintaining a distinct and interesting identity. SPOILERS forever of course, from here on out, but let's discuss:
Could definitely take Jake Gyllenhaal.

Creed really came out of no where, too. For another installment in the Rocky franchise featuring a slew of really hot actors right now, no one had really heard of the flick until a few weeks ago. Ryan Coogler directs by a far more deft and careful hand than this franchise has ever had, which creates a slew of artfully constructed yet perfunctory shots, dynamic engrossing in-fight camerawork and the execution of a compelling, if at times derivative screenplay. Boxing matches have never felt this theatrical, though, and while I'll always miss the sweat eruptions from Rocky IV (1985), the blood splats are just as good.

If he's not considered one already, though, this should signify that Michael B. Jordan is ready to be a star. That middle initial is critical, of course, but this dude devotes himself to the physicality of the role to match Sly's 1976 outing, even if he trades sleekness for jackedness. Jordan also displays a staggering array of emotion, from cocky arrogance to real vulnerability, sometimes in the same scene, masking pain with machismo, balancing ego with a yearning for a father figure. More than anyone else, he sells his right to be here more than Shia LaBeouf could ever sell putting on Indy's hat.

The core conflict is actually sort of meta, although the film never beats you to death with that fact like Jurassic World (2015) did. Jordan's Adonis Creed continuously attempt to distance himself from his father's name. Even though he wants to honor his father, he also has a strong desire to make it as a fighter on his own merit. It's a desire to not be the second Apollo but the first Adonis. The actual film works the same way and largely pulls it off.

The second heavy hitter here is of course, Sly Stallone reprising his role as Rocky, which is almost a surprising turn since he has seemed hesitant to let go of his action persona. His last few films have included the not-good-in-any-way Expendables trilogy, schlocky action flicks Bullet to the Head (2012) and Escape Plan (2013), and of course, the has been boxing film with Bob De Niro, Grudge Match (2013). I'm genuinely surprised he doesn't swing a punch in Creed, and the one time he jumps into the ring he pukes and gets cancer. The result, however, is a far more natural and believable role that isn't reliant on the appeal of a star well passed his prime. These are simple concepts, people.

Tessa Thompson, who has made notable appearances in movies centering on black struggle, such as Dear White People (2014) and Selma (2014) provides a third anchor for the film and complements Jordan in every scene they share, even if she's not allowed to stand out that much.

Of course, Creed is actually the same exact movie as Rocky, down to the training montages, championship running and leaping, and even losing the fight at the end but winning respect. Creed actually sells that juxtaposition a little better because as we've discussed, Adonis' clear goal is to fight for himself and prove that he's his own legacy, which is a bit more developed than Rocky, which gets mired in Rocky awkwardly trying to bang Adrian for like the first forty-five minutes.

I was also impressed by how much Coogler must know about boxing and training, although I'm curious if any of that comes from Stallone. Some of it must. Or he's just so beloved among the boxing community, and through in all the MMA jackholes he's given jobs in Expendables films and he has enough clout in the fighting world as Rocky does in his fictional world.

The film does do an incredible job at setting up that fictional world along with Rocky's place in it as one of the greatest athletes of all time. From casual Sportscenter and PTI blurbs to the recognition and reverence from everyone around him. The only major issue is that no one really gives a shit about boxing anymore. Sure everyone was down for Mayweather-Pacquiao, but that's certainly been an exception rather than the sign of a trend lately. It's generally weird that boxing movies remain pretty popular while the sport is not. I suppose that's because it's great to see characters grow and test themselves in one of the most difficult sports out there, but a little more disturbing to see people sacrifice their minds, bodies, and faces in real life.

I was actually also struck by the idea that this is also a great Black boxing movie, which we don't see that often. Seriously, compared to how many brothers are in the sport we always see some white guy pushing himself past the limits. Name another black boxing movie. Ali (2001)? The Hurricane (1999)? Does either hold the cultural clout of all the Rocky films, Million Dollar Baby (2004), Cindarella Man (2005), The Fighter (2010), or back to Raging Bull (1980)? Well, you could probably argue for a few, but even this year's Southpaw (2015) features some white dude. This fact isn't lost on everyone. Creed becomes a somewhat unlikely candidate to showcase the experience of a young struggling black athlete in genuine but not exploitative context.

It's almost ironic that actor, Michael B. Jordan looks the part more than his final opponent, played by real boxer, Tony Bellew, who looks a bit pudgy. It's nice that the series has moved on from names like Clubber Lang or even Mason "The Line" Dixon, even if "Adonis Creed" is admittedly goofy.

I'd highly recommend Creed for any Rocky fan, boxing fan, or movie fan, really. It's honourable without being obnoxious or on the nose and very well constructed both in plot and cinematic structure. Michael B. Jordan should be in every movie ever, and Stallone could win an Oscar. Let that sink in.

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