Thursday, November 26, 2015

Eye of the Fighter: CREED

Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) hopes to prove he’s not making a mistake following in his father’s footsteps. Similarly, Creed hopes to prove it’s not a mistake to make another Rocky movie. Adonis’s old man was legendary boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who years ago fought Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and became his friend. Creed, Sr. died in the ring before his son, the result of an affair, was born. Now the young man, who bounced around the foster care system before being taken in by his dead father’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), is out to become a great boxer on his own. So both the movie and its lead character could be held back by impossible expectations and audience skepticism: the sixth sequel to an Oscar-winning introduction to an iconic character, and the son of a champion looking to excel in the very arena that made his father famous. You could be excused for thinking they’d both be coasting on past glories and fans’ lingering affections for earlier triumphs. But writer-director Ryan Coogler had other ideas, playing off resonances of the past and building on sturdy genre tropes to make a solid, exciting movie worthy of its predecessor’s legacies.

It’s a glossy boxing picture, the kind where even the grit and grain in Maryse Alberti’s cinematography is pretty. It hauls out every cliché: training montages, downbeat hardships, a hotshot rival, crusty old coaches, and sad diagnoses for not one but two supporting characters. And yet, it works. Coogler, whose Fruitvale Station, a clear-eyed and intimate last-day-in-the-life of a victim of police violence (also starring Jordan), was one of the most notable debut films in recent memory, brings Creed a grounding in emotional realities. Adonis, hoping to get an anonymous start in the sport, moves to Philadelphia to train, slowly coaxing Rocky himself to be his trainer. He doesn’t want to use his father’s name, but he’s eager to befriend someone who really knew the man. Scenes between Jordan and Stallone are exceptionally tender, mixed with a macho joking and jostling. They quickly come to care for one another, each giving their new friend reasons to push themselves to be better. Their dynamic is hardly surprising, but likable nonetheless.

It’s smart to position Rocky as the coach, allowing the franchise’s past to recede into the background as old memories informing the present realities. It’s tied to events of his previous films – we get direct references, through dialogue, props, photos on the wall, and footage of old matches, to every single one of them – but it’s no longer his story, although he gets several terrifically moving scenes. He’s not to around the recapture his former glory. He's here to help train a new guy. Though it’s at times almost impossibly pinned in by demands of fan service and genre formula, Coogler, with co-writer Aaron Covington, spins out of those traps by giving the movie over to Creed, whose ambition and appeal lead him into the usual early bouts and steadily improving training all leading up to a high-profile offer to participate in a match with a current reigning champion (actual pro boxer Tony Bellew). Well-worn tropes are invigorated with exceptionally well-directed scenes, stirring long takes that dance through the ring holding tight on the athletes, or quick, crisp wham-bang punchy editing hammering home the hits, and observant close-ups for soft dialogue in fine dramatic beats between the main events.

Echoes of Rocky are here in the structure, right down to the lovely halting romance with a sweet Philly woman (Tessa Thompson), but Coogler deftly, confidently flips its racial politics in a satisfying, unspoken representation-centered way, as Jordan takes the center and makes the film his own. He commands the screen with his charisma, his striking physicality and believable punches mixing with a vulnerability, a neediness, a desire to prove himself motivating every action, from a sweet first date to a brutal final fight. Well-acted across the board, the ensemble is fine-tuned to the mumbling rhythm of people who aren’t eloquent speakers, but are effective communicators nonetheless, people who know how to express themselves through their body language, through small gestures. Coogler makes great use of their presences, a combination of megawatt youthful star power – Jordan and Thompson are charming and intensely sympathetic – and wistful legacy – Stallone, every bit the past-his-prime legend for whom people still have affection, and Rashad, easy enough to believe as a beloved maternal presence whose famous husband did her wrong.

Coogler’s evident love for the genre and the series helps. He knows how to work it, jabbing at the audience with emotional manipulation, amping up the visceral responses with whomping violence in the ring, and using both subtle and obvious Rocky iconography to goose the nostalgic elements without taking away from the story’s own stand-alone potential. Perhaps the best example of this is the stirring use of Bill Conti’s famous “Gonna Fly Now” melody, teased throughout Ludwig Goransson’s score, then triumphantly unveiled in full at a key climactic moment. It matches the crescendo of the picture, a slow, confident build through expected beats to arrive at an end that’s unexpectedly involving. Somehow both familiar and fresh, this is a fantastically crowd-pleasing movie, mostly what you’d think you’ll get from a boxing picture, especially in its tense final rounds, but elevated by the exceptional craft: smartly structured, movingly acted, confidently directed. That it works so well is no mistake. It’s what you get when talented people know what they’re doing with the legacy they’ve been charged with extending.

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