Thursday, December 3, 2015


 4 / 5 

Maybe some people are born to fight. It is their talent, their drive, their expression and motivation. It's easy to accept that someone is born with the need to paint, draw, write, explore, act, teach, build -- but fighting?  That's harder.

When we first meet Adonis Creed in Creed, the seventh in a line of films about and now featuring Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, he is still a boy, but he is already fighting.  There must be a reason -- his broken home, his socio-economic circumstances.  The "system" has him pegged as a problem, but maybe the need is simply in him, passed down by the father who died before he was born, Apollo Creed, who began as Rocky's nemesis and then became great friend.

Unless you are a true Rocky fan who paid attention during the comically awful Rocky IV, you may have forgotten that Apollo Creed died 30 years ago at the hands of the evil Soviet boxer Ivan Drago.  (This information comes courtesy of Wikipedia, as I've actively tried to forget the film.)

In most movies, growing up parentless would be the only motivation needed to turn Adonis into a fighter, but Creed is smarter than that.  Fighting defines Adonis, literally by nature, and Creed turns out not to be about the craft and technicalities of boxing, but about how Adonis learns who he is, what his father's legacy means, and how to be true to himself by expressing his emotion through boxing.

Adonis is played by Michael B. Jordan, who in 2013 played Oscar Grant in the staggeringly great Fruitvale Station, which was also directed by Creed's director Ryan Coogler.  Fruitvale Station and Creed are the only two feature films Coogler has directed, which means his track record is extraordinary.  The crowd-pleasing, mainstream Creed is in many ways the antithesis of Fruitvale, but it is crafted with equal care.  Coogler is clearly a special and important filmmaker.

The Rocky movies should have run out of steam about 30 years ago, but Coogler's Creed makes the underdog story fresh and relevant, exciting and new.

Creed is about Adonis, but it's also about Rocky himself, who agrees to train Adonis.  It's bout Bianca (Tessa Thompson), with whom Adonis is smitten the moment he sees her.  Both Rocky and Bianca, it turns out, have their own battles -- and in a beautifully conceived and executed thematic through-line, they both need to be fighters.

Adonis meets Rocky, and after some initial hesitation by the older icon, they start training together. In Rocky, Adonis finally finds someone who will take him at least almost as seriously as he takes himself.  Adonis does so well that it attracts the attention of one of the best fighters in the world, an intense and driven Liverpudlian named "Pretty" Ricky Conlan.  Conlan's manager proposes Creed and Conlan fight each other.

Those are the barest bones of the outline, but Creed surprises by finding rich emotional warmth and unexpected nuance in the story.  The outcome is less about whether Creed will win the final match against Conlan, but whether he can square away the life he has known with the life he wants to have, and whether he is good enough and strong enough, outside of the physical, to fight on his own.

Creed resembles Rocky in some ways, but stands on its own.  It's not necessary to have seen any of the earlier films to appreciate this one (though it helps).  Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington weren't even conscious when Rocky IV thundered into theaters, much less the original film, and they use that to their advantage: Creed captures the essence of Rocky and fashions it into something new, a movie that is striking not just because it has a strong story and powerful acting, but because it is visually and sonically beautiful, too.

Creed also takes a bold and unexpected gamble by failing to resolve every possible dramatic conflict, especially the one that a lesser film would have made into its central story.  It is more interested in presenting the problems and letting the characters sort through the emotional consequences than tying up everything in a neat Hollywood ending.

Which isn't to say Creed doesn't have a neat Hollywood ending.  Of course it does.  It's a Rocky movie, so it couldn't play things any other way.  Except that it manages to do exactly that, which makes Creed a special movie, indeed.

Viewed Dec. 2, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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