Creed (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Creed (2015)

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Adonis Johnson lived with nothing but his fists to repel those who threatened him and four prison walls to keep him contained.  His life opens up when he finds out he's the bastard son of Apollo Creed, the legendary boxer who died before Adonis was born.  Looking to quell the wanderlust in his feet and the fire in his fists Adonis travels to Philadelphia to seek training from the one man who might understand him - Rocky Balboa.  Ryan Coogler directs Creed from a screenplay cowritten by Aaron Covington and stars Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and Phylicia Rashad.

A premature echoWho will you root for in Creed?  Our protagonist, Adonis, seems the natural fit considering he is taking up the mantle of the man whose last name Adonis didn't realize he shared for several years into his life.  But consider the men Adonis fights.  Either they're struggling to make something of themselves after exhausting other options, or trying to bring money home to their families.  Even the "villain" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellow) needs to succeed so he can put food on his children's plates before he goes to prison.  So who's in the right?

Everybody.  Nobody.  Maybe this one's a little deserving at this point and others get boosted up to star status even though they've never done anything to "deserve" it.  One of the genius points Ryan Coogler makes with Creed is that life can be as randomly cruel as it is rewarding.  Sometimes it's a matter of having the right name, other times it's being caught with the correct person at the wrong time, and just like that the chance of a lifetime slips away.

Coogler isn't interested in presenting another American myth like the Rocky movies before him.  He's too aware the American Dream is something perpetually beyond the reach of minorities and entire sports enterprises have been created to exploit their pain as a way to get to the "big time".  But Coogler isn't a pessimist either.  The American Dream still inspires wide swaths of citizens because once in a while you get to grow up with one of the exceptions to the rule.  When Adonis stands in the ring at the end of Creed he's as much an affirmation of The American Dream as he is the proof it's not made for people like him and at the end of the day he's just another silhouette against a grey Philadelphia sky.

Ryan Coogler with cinematographer Maryse Alberti find the beauty in decay and the resolute walls of Philadelphia.

Ryan Coogler with cinematographer Maryse Alberti find the beauty in decay and the resolute walls of Philadelphia.

Let's talk about those silhouettes and shadows a moment, because Coogler works with them so deftly it's important we understand just why things keep fading out of view.  Coogler works with every inch of the frame to show Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) or Rocky Balboa (the returning Sylvester Stallone) cloaked in shadow or shifting out of focus.  One wonderful shot has Adonis walking away from an apartment after asking the occupant to turn her music down and we watch Adonis firm in the light before descending into shadow and finally disappearing in the reflection of a staircase window.  Rocky himself is no longer a powerhouse myth, but trains Adonis from the darkness and as Creed progresses becomes further out of focus.

It's important for these moments that our primary viewpoint comes from Adonis and not Rocky, because Adonis complicates the myth built in sports movies.  Here's someone who has Apollo Creed's name but not his legacy, who was born with the need to fight in his blood but didn't understand why, whose father died before he was born and whose mother cared little about what happened to the boy.  Adonis has no time for legend, no wish to build a myth for himself, and despite the silver spoon he happened into by chance he understands more than anyone else his age how quickly he can fall.  Adonis and Rocky are already disappearing legends, Adonis because of his deeply rooted fear of losing what bit of himself he understands and Rocky because time has weathered his once powerful but now quietly proud body.

If I'm making Creed sound a bit melancholy, that's because it is.  All of Adonis' blood relatives and Rocky's closest loved ones are dead.  But Creed endures because it hovers in that complicated space between being alive and simply existing.  If Creed dipped a bit too far into the well of self-pity both Adonis and Rocky's journeys would feel pointless.  That's when Coogler dips back into the well of the American myth, and in a wonderful update of the classic training montage shows Adonis running the streets and summoning allies on motor bikes and four-wheelers to push himself beyond his limits.  Adonis would be nothing without the sacrifice and suffering of those who came before him and this moment shows Adonis won't forget his roots.

Centering the storm of complication are Jordan and Stallone's pitch-perfect performances in what could have otherwise been a routine victory lap for the next generation of boxing films.  Jordan proves like he did with Fruitvale Station that he is one of the best leading men working today.  He makes Adonis smart but not very wise, and shy in a way his father seemed incapable of.  As great as Jordan is, Stallone is stellar in his return to Rocky.  For the last few years Stallone's been ignoring his age with the Expendables movies and other action fare like Bullet to the Head.  But in Creed, he creates a beautiful host for a dying man doing the kind of acting I thought Robert DeNiro would be up to at his age.  In Stallone's hands Rocky is as tender and monosyllabic as ever, unable to "get with the times" but still able to bring out someone's natural talent.  Rocky's relationship with Adonis is as complicated as Adonis' view of himself, but Stallone cuts through the complications with simple love and affection.

If no other Adonis Creed movies are made this one once again secures Sylvester Stallone's legacy and builds up Michael B. Jordan to the same level of myth.

If no other Adonis Creed movies are made this one once again secures Sylvester Stallone's legacy and builds up Michael B. Jordan to the same level of myth.

But what surprised me in Creed is how deeply devoted Coogler is to presenting the mothers of the world in the same complicated but strong light.  Phylicia Rashad's role as Adonis' adopted mother Mary Anne Creed is not too far from Octavia Spencer's in Fruitvale Station, but Coogler takes the time to develop Mary's conflicted thoughts on Adonis going into fighting but doesn't turn her into a fussy maternal character.  She's someone who is also proud of what she has done with her life and wants to do right by her late husband and this boy who is of no direct relation to her.  Tessa Thompson gets a similarly dense role as Adonis' girlfriend Bianca, who is not interested in giving up her dreams to allow Adonis' rash emotional impulses to dictate where she can go in life.

It's through Bianca the Philadelphia setting comes alive.  People seem to flit in and out of Adonis and Bianca's orbit thanks to her - be it the random passerby who hears too much of Adonis first date pitch and wishes him luck, or the club Adonis happens by on a late night jog only to find Bianca playing.  Bianca's not so simple as to bring out the best in Adonis and instead brings out the best in the city which Coogler responds to in kind by allowing its denizens access to Adonis and Bianca's courtship and providing local flavor in restaurant whose employees make an immediate and cheerful impression.

Without these moments we wouldn't understand why Adonis wants to live up to the name of Apollo Creed.  These are the people who created the myth of Rocky and may do the same for Adonis.  He just understands, better than those he fights against, that the myth gives way to the universal ash in time.  As Orson Welles once said, "Our songs may be silenced. But what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man's name doesn't matter that much." Adonis has learned the song of his life, transcended the name which was his birthright, and with tears in my eyes I witness Coogler and Jordan once again creating one of the best films of the year.

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Tail - CreedCreed (2015)

Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Screenplay written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and Phylicia Rashad.

Posted by Andrew

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