Thursday, January 7, 2016

'Creed' (2015) directed by Ryan Coogler

There are few more satisfying pleasures than watching an underdog prove their worth. This is the bedrock on which the Rocky franchise is built: from the iconic original's good-natured meat packer, right through his subsequent battles against brain damage, Mr T, Soviet super-science, shady accounting practises (a bit of a low for the series) and, in 2006's Rocky Balboa, old age.

The theme has often extended behind the scenes. Rocky faced intense scepticism from studio heads, preferring to cast Robert Redford in the lead role rather than an unknown Stallone. Similarly, Rocky Balboa was a comeback film: partly fuelled by perverse curiosity at whether a 60 year old could credibly lead a boxing film.

Writer/director Ryan Coogler's Creed has its own hurdles to clear. It's essentially Rocky VII and you'd be hard-pressed to name many other franchises that haven't run out of steam by their seventh instalment. It also has to function as an instalment in a 40 year story and as a very soft reboot, reinvigorating a now pretty damn familiar sports movie narrative.

Miraculously, Creed succeeds beyond all expectations. Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of perennial series rival/friend Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring at the outset of Rocky IV. The first beats of the plot appear to be easing us into a well-worn groove; introducing us to young Adonis as he brawls in juvie. He's subsequently adopted by Apollo Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashād).

We next meet him in some back-alley sleaze bar in Tijuana, climbing into a grimy boxing ring where he furiously and effortlessly demolishes some nameless mook. Just when we think we know where this is going, smash cut to a suited and booted Adonis behind his desk at a buttoned down finance corporation, restlessly flexing his bruised hands. 

Having Adonis begin the film swaddled in the cosy trappings of the upper/middle class is a bold move; the character having to prove himself as much to the audience as to the fictional boxing world. Soon he's off on a voyage of personal growth that quickly leads him to Philadelphia, where he tracks down an aged Rocky Balboa and slowly convinces him to train him. Along the way he becomes romantically entangled with musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson).

From then on it's your usual tangle of personal setbacks, runs around the Philadelphia, emotional breakthroughs and, best of all, training montages set to pumping music. Though the focus has shifted to a new generation of boxers, practically every narrative development in Creed echoes the series' storied past.

Elevating all this from sports movie of the week is that Ryan Coogler directs the fuck out of it. Clearly realising he's onto a winner, the film is packed with cinematic delights both bombastic and subtle. Most obviously striking are several balletic one shots sprinkled through the narrative. These tend to emphasise moving between environments; from a dressing room to crowded boxing ring, off the street and into a grimy gym and so on. So far, so Scorsese, right?

All this comes to a head roughly mid-way through the film in a bravura single-shot boxing match that's probably the best cinematic representation of the sport ever. This is our hero's chance to prove he's got the right stuff, his first 'proper' professional fight. Coogler's camera dances around the ring at eye-level with the fighters, swooping around to emphasise the geography of the ring, the way a fighter moves and, exhilaratingly, a smidge of what it feels like to have a very determined, very  muscled men coming at you with the intention of punching you very hard in the face.

It's a resolutely unglamourous depiction of boxing, underlining the many lines of dialogue where the characters explain that the brief satisfaction victory gives you isn't worth the brain damage, broken bones, humiliation, short career and, memorably, having to have someone wipe your arse when you're too mangled to manage it yourself.

This core fight is so good that it runs a serious risk of making the final bout a bit anticlimactic. But Coogler once again proves he knows his shit, pulling out a fresh bag of expressionistic cinematic tricks, making the thunking body blows and ringing knockout punches echoes of the film's emotional whomp.

This is ably aided by Coogler's own script and uniformly excellent performances. Stallone in particular is better than he's been in years, turning in a downright moving, naturalistic portrayal of an old punchbag shouldering his fair share of regrets. Rocky is recognisably Rocky, after all these years.

But it's Michael B. Jordan who bears the full dramatic burden. Adonis Creed is a that rare thing in Hollywood: a fully developed black male protagonist. Jordan knocks the role out of the park, managing the tricky task of making the character's love of violence neatly congruent with his intelligence and sensitivity.

It's just an all-round excellent movie, in which everyone is bringing their A game. It succeeds as a Rocky movie, it succeeds as a sports movie and, importantly, it blindingly succeeds as a movie in its own right. Frankly, if you're watching one of the blisteringly edited and scored training montages and don't want to jump out of your seat and start running marathons you may have something wrong with you. It's a dynamite experience.


Creed is released on 15 January.

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