Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Anthony Bellew, Ritchie Coster, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Ricardo “Padman” McGill, Gabriel Rosado, Alex Henderson
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington, based on a story by Ryan Coogler, and on characters created by Sylvester Stallone
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality
Running Time: 132
Date: 11/24/2015

Creed (2015)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

True Glove

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Since 2008, studios have been increasingly reluctant to spend money on movies with anything slightly resembling an original idea. Not they they were terribly brave before the market crash, but in the years since they managed to pull their cards even closer to their chests. Even so, clever filmmakers — as they have always done — have found ways to express creativity within the system. One of these ways is to inject new life into long-running franchises. This year, George Miller did miraculous things with Mad Max: Fury Road. In 2013, Shane Black somehow snuck subversive themes about the emptiness of action movies into his Iron Man 3. And Sam Mendes gave James Bond an exquisite new artistry and depth in Skyfall (2012). Now the Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler has worked more miracles with the 40 year-old Rocky series.

Coogler, you may remember, gave us a compassionate and thought-provoking Fruitvale Station (2013), which earned strong reviews, but was totally ignored at Oscar time (despite handling by those Oscar-machines, the Weinsteins). For voters, it was probably too simple, and yet not simple enough. It offered no moral lessons, no rational explanations, for what happened to Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). It simply made the tragedy clearer by showing us who he might have been, his problems, his goodness. It may have seemed like a step back for Coogler to abandon ambitious projects about life and take on a movie-movie like a Rocky film, but he does something extraordinary with his seventh Rocky. He gives it life.

Creed begins with a flashback set in echoing stone hallways, with official, stern-looking grown-ups ordering young boys around. A boy (played by Alex Henderson) fights with some other boys, and he has a particular ferocity coming from somewhere deep within. A woman, Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad) comes to see him; she is the widow of Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers in the first four Rocky films, and killed in the ring by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV). The boy is Adonis, or "Donny," the illegitimate son of Apollo. Mary Ann offers to take him in and raise him after a lifetime of foster homes and institutions.

Years later, Coogler gives us some striking juxtapositions. Jordan takes on the role of the grown-up Donny, a light heavyweight. He prepares for a fight in a ratty Tijuana ring. The fight is shown from slightly below and off-center, shot through the ropes. It's over quickly, and Creed wins. He still has this powerful, pureblood aggression. What has happened to him over the years? In an astonishing cut, we next see Donny at work, in some kind of financial firm, sitting at a desk, tapping on a computer, and wearing a tie, his knuckles faintly bruised. When he comes home, it's to the spacious, hard, white mansion bought by his father's heavyweight champion money.

In just a few scenes, Coogler sets up what is going to be a fascinating character study. Let's reiterate that Creed is a character study, much like the original Rocky (1976), rather than a superhero movie or a comic book movie like some of the middle Rocky sequels became. The movie never betrays this setup. Donny takes the next logical step; he decides he can't work in an office while something burns inside of him, and, over the protesting of his adopted mom, he goes to Philadelphia to find the legend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to ask for his training expertise. In their first scene together, Coogler demonstrates once again what he's up to here; he's dismantling anything larger-than-life, or mythical, or legendary. He's getting back to life. Remember that secret fight between Rocky and Apollo in Rocky III (1982), whose outcome was left up to your imagination? Creed tells us what happened.

While training, Donny meets a beautiful singer, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), but even this relationship is far from typical. Yes, their conversations, and the way they progress together as a couple is richly written and emotionally realistic, but Coogler throws in a fascinating thematic wrinkle. Bianca has progressive hearing loss, something that would be difficult for anyone, but is especially tragic for someone whose entire life is music. Everyone in this world of Creed has only this moment, with only the tools available to them at present. The future, and any possible happy endings, are things of imagination and fiction. Even Rocky finally faces his mortality in this movie; death surrounds him. He even keeps a folding chair hidden in a tree for when he goes to visit his family in the cemetery.

Throughout the movie, Coogler keeps topping himself. There's the shot of Donny boxing along with a big-screened YouTube clip of his father and Rocky, fighting with them, but also against them. There's Donny's second fight, shot in what appears to be an absolutely revolutionary continuous take. There's the complex debate over whether to use the name "Creed," and what it means. There's the final fight, better seen than described, but sure to enter the lexicon of great cinematic fights. And there's the follow-up to Rocky's victorious run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. In-between Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington, keeps proposing brilliantly simple themes, such as Rocky and Donny approaching a full-length mirror; Rocky tells Donny to face his fiercest opponent, to shadow box with him. "I'll leave you two alone for a while," he says, as only Rocky could say it.

As a footnote, though Creed is a totally, thoroughly satisfying movie on every level, it must be said that Stallone is particularly magnificent here, and that's because he carries with him a huge history. His own Rocky was a small movie that became a legend; it was almost a Cinderella story. It's whispered that he wrote the screenplay in just a few days, with no money in the bank, and then negotiated to get the lead part, talking MGM out of casting whoever was on the "A" list at the time. He gained financially and in star power, but he lost his two Oscar nominations, and his career locked onto a particular path. Like his screen character Stallone became a kind of superhero, appearing in dozens of big, dumb action movies, some of which are well-made and entertaining, but very few of which realized his actual appeal. Creed is an almost magical full-circle for him, and one that could earn him that long-awaited Oscar. Not that Oscars are all that important in judging the worth of a new movie; Creed is inexorably connected to an Oscar-winner, yet it moves ahead with its own body and soul.

MGM and Warner Home Video's home video release is pretty solid, picture- and sound-wise, and it includes a digital copy and a DVD as well as a Blu-ray. The extras are a bit skimpy: a couple of short featurettes, and deleted scenes. A commentary track with Coogler and Stallone at least would have been appreciated.

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