Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2015 2:17 pm 
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Once more with feeling: could it be meta enough to please both the old audience and a new one too?

Who is the ideal viewer of Creed? Obviously fans of the venerable "Rocky" franchise, of which this is the seventh installment, and one that breathes fresh life into it. Next, those who enjoy standard boxing movies, whose rules this one doesn't depart from for a minute, unless for the use of a smart phone to photograph a set of handwritten workout instructions. (The old guy who penned them is disconcerted: he never heard of "The Cloud.") Finally Creed may readily be enjoyed by all those who appreciate a simple mainstream crowd-pleaser that's executed with real skill.

I would be in the last category. Creed held me in its thrall with the sureness of its scenes for quite a while. I knew I was watching simple, classic stuff, but the sureness of the hand was awesome. I have to admit, though, that the well ran dry for me somewhere in the second half. Was it when the young man alienates his girlfriend just when he needs her most? Or when the venerable coach (Stallone, this time in the supporting, not lead, role) begins to face a near-unwinnable battle of his own, tugging at our heartstrings? Or was it, once and for all, deep into the obligatory championship fight, at that moment when the hitherto pleasingly specific blow-by-blow sequences finally give way, in haste or confusion, to a blurry montage to rush us, none too soon after 130 minutes, to the finale?

Even so, Creed really had me in those intense early sequences, a series of bright, in-your-face scenes heavy on closeups where the three leads, Michael B. Jordan (who played Oscar Grant in Coogler's debut Fruitvale Station, acclaimed in Un Certain Regard at Cannes); Stallone, stepping back but still able to hold his own, and charm; and Tessa Thompson, as Jordan's feisty, talented new singer girlfriend, go at each other one-on-one with fresh-feeling intensity. Even when the movie was starting to run on empty, the good feeling lingered. Jordan is a fresh and ever-present and physically spectacular-looking young man, and Stallone delivers a lot of heart. There was only a lingering disappointment that Ryan Coogler chose for his sophomore effort to deliver his all -- on somebody else's worn-out franchise. Even if he breathes new life into it, even if this is wonderful mainstream filmmaking, couldn't he have done something more his own? Either he'll be stuck with "Rocky" variations now, or will have to move beyond them and reassert his independence, and neither will be easy.

Stallone is Rocky Balboa -- again. But this time he's not only old, but retired even from coaching, just running an Italian restaurant in Philly. It's there, leaving Los Angeles, that Adonis Johnson (Jordan) comes after him, full of eagerness, a "mostly self-taught" boxer, dragging a complicated and far-fetched backstory but one that provides the needed ingredients. He's got the genes, but he's got to prove it. He's the illegitimate son of great prizefighter Apollo Creed, opponent and friend of Rocky, who died in the ring before he was born. He was raised in foster homes and reformatories (or something) but, as we see in an opening background scene, was taken in as an adolescent (Alex Henderson) by his father's widow (Phylicia Rashad). Thus he has gone from hard knocks and constant fights to living in a mansion. I guess Apollo did well financially before he died in the ring. (How come he hadn't lost it all like Jake Gyllenhaal in this year's other big fight movie, Southpaw? Well, forget Southpaw; that was a bomb).

So in some funny way Donnie both is and isn't an underdog. He has to prove that he has the street smarts, and that he can fight. That fits the fact that while Michael B. Jordan talks black, he sounds, as Rocky says right off, like he has some education. We also see at the outset that after winning his fifteenth cheap nowhere fight in Mexico, he has a financial sector job he has to quit to dedicate himself full-time to becoming a fighter -- without even having had any training. Forget all that. Once he relocates to an unfancy neighborhood of Philly, underneath the apartment of Bianca (Thompson), a singer with progressive hearing loss (she sure plays her music loud, but, what the heck?), he's in "Rocky" territory now, and the training can begin, once, that is, he's convinced Rocky to oblige. I feel silly summarizing this. Isn't it all too awfully familiar? But the scenes are so well shot and edited, the acting so direct and uncluttered and full of simple conviction, you just gobble it up.

As time goes on, Donnie's identity issue has to vie with the other principals' illness and disability issues, and all that has to get folded into the Big Fight at the end. There is no time for Donnie to do any fancy soul-searching when it becomes public knowledge that he's the son of Apollo Creed. Rocky pours out the dry philosophies of fighting and life, but there are no impassioned speeches as there were in earlier such films. Jordan has a dry, no-nonsense acting style, ruling with the sheer intensity of his start. When Rocky lines Donnie up in front of a mirror in boxing gloves and says "that's your worst opponent," it's believable.

Donnie gives in against Rocky's advice to fighting about-to-retire heavyweight champion "Pretty" Ricky Conlan of Liverpool. Tony Bellew, who plays Conlan, is a real former three-time AMB heavyweight champion. (He's also pretty mean-looking.) The movie rushes headlong through its standard structure, despite oddball details.

An excellent feature of Creed is that the fighters Donnie takes on in his rapid rise are real ones, and needless to say, they look it. Major props to Jordan for managing to look convincing in the ring with them, and to the film for making the fights look real and blow-by-blow, till that last bit of fudging. I didn't come away from this movie with a lot of interesting thoughts and feelings to ponder. But I did leave with a sense of things done right, and more than one chuckle at Stallone's sure rhythm in delivering every almost-throwaway line of laconic wise-old-guy dialogue. The man's chops are still up, and this is one of the best performances he's ever delivered.

Maybe both Jordan and Coogler are struggling with their own identities. Skirting on the edge of meta, Creed could wind up pleasing the old audience, and a new one as well.

Creed, 135 mins., opened in Canada and the US 25 Nov., in time for American Thanksgiving.

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