Tuesday, November 24, 2015

'Creed': sequel follows a 'Rocky' road

Director Ryan Coogler tells the winning story of a driven young boxer and the aging Italian Stallion who trains him.

The trailer for Creed suggests we're in for a story about a young boxer fighting his way up from a tough neighborhood. That's not exactly an original idea, but it's the kind of reliable old chestnut that never seems to wear out its big-screen welcome.

Then Sylvester Stallone pops into the trailer as Rocky Balboa. Stallone delivers a line about how the young boxer, a determined looking black kid who wears his muscles like armor, should know that he'll never face a tougher opponent than himself. The inner battle must be won before the kid can triumph in the ring.

Stallone? Rocky? Really?

In case we hadn't already guessed, the title of the movie -- writ large at the trailer's end -- let's us know that the upcoming movie will be grown from Rocky roots: Creed.

The boxer Apollo Creed, of course, made his way into a quartet of earlier Rocky movies. Now, we were going to meet Creed's son, another boxer who shoulders a burden of anger, ferocity and drive.

But wait ...
Creed features yet another level of promotion. The trailer tells us that the movie was directed by Ryan Coogler, the same guy who brought us Fruitvale Station, a troubling indie drama about the death of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by a police officer while riding a BART train in Oakland.

That film starred Michael B. Jordan, the actor who appears as Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed in a movie that takes the Creed name because it's unlikely that anyone would turn out for a movie called Johnson.

The trailer got my mind moving in what seemed like two irreconcilable directions. Would it be possible to add the authenticity and power of Fruitvale Station to a Rockyesque formula job? And if so, what exactly would be the point?

After seeing Creed, I'm still not sure about the point part, but Coogler has made an enjoyable crowd-pleaser by focusing on a light heavyweight boxer who -- despite a staggering lack of experience -- lands a title shot after being trained by none other than Rocky Balboa.

If you stop and think about it (and I'm not suggesting that you should) Creed is one wacky movie.

Consider Adonis' less-than-hardscrabble background: After stints in juvenile detention, Adonis was adopted by Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad). He grew up in a luxurious atmosphere, landed a good, post-college job and seemed primed for a fine middle class life -- except for one thing: He couldn't stop fighting. Adonis made a habit of traveling to Mexico for low-rent bouts. Eventually, he decided that his destiny wasn't to be found in an office, but in the ring.

So it's off to Philadelphia to find Rocky, whose life consists of sitting around his red-sauce restaurant with pictures of halcyon days on the walls. Reluctantly, Rocky takes Adonis under wing setting off a flurry of father/son dynamics and raising issues about family and responsibility.

As the movie moves forward, it peppers the screen with references to Rocky's past. Coogler's camera gravitates toward the same gritty locations that gave the Rocky movies their faux authenticity. Carefully placed traces of the triumphal Rocky score help energize Adonis' training regimen.

Every boxer needs a love interest. Creed doesn't shortchange in that department, either.

When he moves into a ratty apartment, Adonis meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who's gradually going deaf, perhaps for no other reason than that every character in any kind of Rocky movie needs an obstacle.

Jordan gives Adonis palpable hunger, but keeps him likable. Thompson, terrific in the movie Dear White People, adds the spark of a self-assertive feminine presence.

But it's Stallone who gives the stand-out performance as an aging boxer whose balloon of hope slowly has deflated. Now 69, Stallone can't conceal the slight sag in his jowls. And are those strands of gray peeping out from under Rocky's trademark Pork Pie?

Wacky, yes, but the movie's willingness to adopt a fluid approach to urban cliches from two different eras (Adonis' and Rocky's) adds a layer of freshness. Creed has the good sense to pull the rug out from under itself: Like its predecessors, the movie manages to be serious and a goof at the same time.

Coogler knows that every boxing movie ultimately must climb into the ring. Adonis' championship fight is replete with resounding body blows, sprays of blood and heightened brutalism.

Thanks to some last-minute plot manipulations, a bout is arranged between Adonis and the current champion, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew). The fight takes place in Liverpool after Conlan's manager (Graham McTavish) insists that Adonis boost interest in the fight by using the Creed name.

Coogler's screenplay keeps reminding us of the psychological tension in a young man who wants to be known for his own accomplishments but who also must come to terms with the image of a famous father -- even though he never met the man. Apollo died before Adonis was born.

A determined Jordan drives the movie forward, a dialed-down Stallone keeps a light foot on the breaks, and somehow the whole thing coheres to make for ardent and rousing entertainment. Creed may not be a knockout, but I'd score it a surprise winner on points.

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