Saturday, January 12, 2019

Left Hook

Film: Creed
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on The New Portable.

I haven’t really decided what I’m going to do with this blog in the future. I mean, I’ve still got 18 months of Oscar posts to go, but I don’t have a ton of movies left to review on the lists I’ve committed to. There are, of course, other potential Oscar categories for me to add to the list. Or perhaps I’ll just review whatever I feel like reviewing. That’s sort of what is happening today with Creed, which is sort of like Rocky VII in certain respects, even if Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is no longer the main character.

We start in the past with a young man named Adonis (Alex Henderson) who appears to be troubled. In and out of foster homes and juvie, Adonis is visited one day by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who tells him who he is. While his name is Adonis Johnson, his father is Apollo Creed, the late heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Adonis is the product of an extramarital affair, and Mary Anne has decided to more or less adopt her late husband’s illegitimate child.

Flash forward a number of years, and Adonis (now played by Michael B. Jordan) is hoping the border to Mexico to fight unbeknownst to his adoptive mother. He has a good job during the day, but when his record gets to 15-0, he quits his job to box full-time. He also gets a very ugly lesson in what the boxing world is like. Full of himself and deciding he can take on the world, he attempts to demand time at his father’s old gym, taking on all comers. One of those is Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward), who knocks Adonis cold. Looking for a change, Adonis heads to Philadelphia and looks up his father’s old rival and friend, Rocky Balboa.

Rocky now runs a restaurant and stays out of the fight game. A bit punchy from too many blows to the head and slowed by time, Rocky is also now essentially alone in the world, his wife Adrian and brother-in-law/best friend Paulie both having died. Adonis, who goes by Donnie Johnson, not wanting to capitalize on his father’s name, eventually convinces Rocky to come out of retirement and train him. As a sort of test fight, Donnie takes on Leo “The Lion” Sporino (Gabe Rosado), the son of the head trainer at Rocky’s old club. Donnie wins in a shocking upset, and soon the world knows who he is…and who his father was.

While all of this is happening, we also follow the story of “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the title holder for the light heavyweight belt. Conlan has time for one last fight before serving a prison sentence and a brawl takes out his intended opponent. Adonis has the name, though, and Conlan’s final match is offered to him. He agrees to the fight, and shortly thereafter, Rocky is diagnosed with non-Hodkins lymphoma, and he refuses treatment, having seen what happened to Adrian.

In a lot of ways, Creed plays like the original Rocky. The story—a fighter who hasn’t really earned a break getting one on a huge world stage—plays the same way. There’s also a very similar romance in some ways. Adonis has a meet-cute with his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician who is slowly losing her hearing to a degenerative condition. It’s not the same romance as the one between Rocky and Adrian in the first movie, but there are some similarities. It’s not a complete knock off of the first film, but there’s a lot here—the reluctant trainer, the big staged fight, the self-doubt, the training montages. There are even throwbacks to that, with Adonis chasing live chickens around Rocky’s back yard.

So, while the plot isn’t that exceptional, other things are. Jordan is very good as Adonis Creed, and he looks the part in every way he can. There’s a great deal of rage in the young Creed, and Jordan expresses that throughout the film, playing Adonis as if he is frequently seething below the surface, even when he’s otherwise happy. The relationship between him and Bianca, while perhaps developing too quickly, seems otherwise natural as well. The two look good together, like they belong with each other as a couple.

With all of that said, in most of the ways that count, this is Stallone’s film. It’s so easy to write off Sylvester Stallone as a big, dumb action movie guy. He’s certainly made enough of those in his career that it’s easy to think of him that way. It’s refreshing to be reminded of how good he can be when he’s got material to work with. Stallone slips back into the role of Rocky Balboa like slipping on a pair of slippers. He inhabits the role like it has always belonged to him. This time, the Rocky he plays is older, more tired, and weary with the life that he has left. There’s almost a wisdom to him, a sense of finality that is not to be feared but welcomed and earned.

It also helps that the boxing, while sometimes as unrealistic as it has ever been in the Rocky franchise, is beautifully filmed. It moves so well and depicts the action about as well as it probably can be done. And while the boxing does sometimes have the “that would never happen” stigma, it’s not to the level it frequently is in boxing films in general.

I don't know what I expected, but I'm happy I saw this. It's about as good as I hoped it might be, and far better than I could have expected for what is, more or less, the seventh film in a franchise that has been around for more than 40 years.

Why to watch Creed: It’s easy to forget how good Stallone can really be.
Why not to watch: You’ve pretty much seen this plot before.

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