Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Creed (2015) - Movie Review you think of the words "sports movie", nine times out of ten it’ll be one of the Rocky movies that immediately comes to mind. Another addition of the Sylvester Stallone oeuvre that has ingrained itself permanently into pop culture, it is also some of the best and, at times, cheesiest boxing action in the history of cinema. Of course, as is the case with any highly-lauded franchise, any new instalments are going to be treated with supreme scepticism by the audience. We saw plenty of this earlier in the year with new additions to Mad Max (outstanding), Jurassic Park (pointless) and Terminator (thoroughly disappointing), so we’ve already gotten a decent spectrum of how this could turn out. So, with the upstart director of the surprise success Fruitvale Station at the helm, Stallone coming back as the Italian Stallion himself and franchise producer Irwin Winkler giving his support to the production, how did this turn out?

The plot: Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the youngest son of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, born out of wedlock and taken in by Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashād) after his mother’s death. Determined to make a name for himself in the world of boxing, he seeks the mentorship of Apollo’s best friend Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) who, after some coaxing, agrees to train him. As news of this underdog reaches the press, champion boxer Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) wants one last bout before he gets sent to prison, so he challenges Donny to a match that may give Adonis a chance to finally prove himself.

Michael B. Jordon, despite what some of his work from earlier in the year may suggest, is a remarkably charismatic actor and this is a clear example of that at work. His portrayal of Adonis shows a bit of cockiness, a bit of a douchebag streak, but definitely someone with a lot of heart and the will to prove himself. His clean muscle is a bit distracting for a few femtoseconds, most likely after seeing the ripped Gyllenhaal not that long ago, but he also carries off the fights in the ring just as smoothly. Alongside him is Sly Stallone and, not gonna lie, he can get awkward in a couple of scenes. Then again, this is the guy who made his mark in films that he wrote himself; he’s just one of those stars that works best with his own words.

However, when Coogler and Covington give him gold, he delivers friggin’ gold. Case in point, his conversation with Adonis in the locker room after he finds out certain information Rocky was keeping from him. What follows is a highly concentrated monologue that pretty much embodies the Spartan warrior coda of the original Rocky films, and should remind audiences just how great Stallone can be when he isn’t completely disappointing people like with Expendables 3. While the rest of the cast do great, the only real weak link here is Ricky Conlan. Not that this is Bellew’s fault, as he infuses enough British hard into the role to make it work as well as he can. The problem with him is that, especially in comparison to Apollo, Lang and Drago, he isn’t that interesting of an opponent.

The crux of the film is one of legacy, both in and out of its own universe. In-universe, Adonis has a thirst to show that he is a reputable fighter on his own terms, and doesn’t have to lean on his father’s legacy to make his mark. Out-of-universe, Creed has to prove that it is capable of standing alongside the original films, considering we’re not only dealing with a relative newcomer as director/co-writer but also with an all-new main character. Last time we saw Rocky hand over the reins to someone else, we got the pretty underwhelming Rocky V. Well, let’s see how it fares when it comes to what it is that makes the Rocky series great. First step, naturally, would be the boxing matches themselves. Even if it means less immediate battle damage, the long shots taken here for some of the fights are done to superb effect.

However, something that even the Rocky films themselves seem to forget is that the fight scenes on their own aren’t enough; what occurs in between them is just as important, if not more so. One look at the running times for each of the Rocky movies is a clear enough indicator of that: The longer ones (Rocky I, II and Balboa) usually allowed more time for character development and created more effective build-up for each fight, whereas the shorter ones (Rocky III, IV, V) just focused primarily on the fights and the training montages. Here, we’re definitely in the former category, as the build-up is palpable with Jordon bringing the personal triumphant edge and Stallone doing wonders as the motivator. Like I said, the man is amazing with the right script and he gives chills with how well he gives his speeches here. He might even motivate my lazy gut to get into the gym… possibly.

The big thing that the world remembers the Rocky series for, bar none, is the music. That classic theme, when coupled with the training sequences, made for the stuff of sports film legend; I defy anyone to listen to the original theme and not feel the urge to start running. Enter Ludwig Göransson, sitcom theme composer and right-hand man of Childish Gambino, not to mention half the brains behind the excellent soundtrack from Top Five. Being familiar with his work with Gambino, I was expecting decent work from him here. What I wasn’t expecting was a score that well and truly lives up to the name of Bill Conti. It’s almost as if he studied the man’s style incessantly because he has nailed Conti’s proficiency with horn sections, not to mention drum work that is hand-crafted to accelerate heartbeats. I’d even go so far as to say he creates genuine masterworks for this film, especially when we see Adonis running alongside the bikers; the weaving in and out of different styles brings tears to the music lover’s eye.

Unfortunately, while he’s certainly succeeded at reviving the spirit of Conti’s compositions, he starts to falter when he tries to re-use his actual compositions. Yep, we have a slight retuning of the Rocky theme in the final fight, and it pains me to admit this but it just doesn’t sound right. Honestly, the added touches made sound pretty unnecessary and, given how respectful he’s been to the man’s work, it would’ve worked a lot better if he just conducted the original theme as is. His strengths aren’t just in strict composition, as he’s also a damn good curator of music as well. This film basically proves how to construct a hip-hop soundtrack for a boxing film and do it right, unlike the half-arsed attempt in Southpaw. Alongside lyrical heavyweights like Nas, Joey Bada$$ and 2Pac, he also pays tribute to Philly by including artists from the area like Meek Mill, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and, naturally, the legendary Fifth Dynasty crew The Roots. The only way this could’ve been better is if Adonis’ entrance music was Stomp, complete with Just Blaze’s blood-boiling shouts, but it’s not like I’m going to knock Hail Mary too heavily here.

All in all, this is a phenomenally good addition to the legendary series. While it may not have the most original elements in the world, Ryan Coogler makes up for it with stone-cold brilliant execution. The acting is fantastic, with Jordon and Stallone working great off of each other, the boxing fights are very well executed and exhilarating to watch, and the music pays tribute to Bill Conti’s eternally remembered score while making its own mark and even manages to improve upon a previously-attempted formula to incorporate hip-hop into the soundtrack (both with Southpaw and with Rocky V). This is well and truly a worthy follow-up, and a pretty damn good sports film in its own right.

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