Creed (2015)

creed_posterThere’s a very special place in my heart for Rocky (1976) and I choose those words very carefully. The reason being, subsequent films lost the appeal of the original and I simultaneously lost interest in the franchise. Perhaps it’s because, after Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough film, the series lost much of its unassuming charm. It was no longer an underdog story. It no longer felt as personal and intimate.

It’s true that I cannot pass any kind of judgment on Rocky II, III, IV, V, and Rocky Balboa. But it’s so easy to lose your guiding light, for a franchise to drift away from what made it good by simply relying on blockbuster status, star power, and a  robust fanbase. These very things kept me away and yet Creed made me extremely happy that I came back into the fold.

This is by no means a rehash of the original Rocky, that beloved classic in the pantheon of sports movies, but it knows its lineage and maintains the same spirit of that narrative. But when you have such a strong sense of your roots, that makes it all the easier to head out into new terrain.

Creed is, of course, about Apollo Creed’s son. Because whether you know it or not (I didn’t) Apollo Creed has passed away. He was (SPOILER) killed by Ivan Drago. All he left behind was his wife, an illustrious boxing career, and crucial to this story, an illegitimate son who has grown up much of his life in juvie. But his widow tracks down the boy and looks to rehabilitate him, like a prodigal son gone astray.

Over time, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Johnson) grows in knowledge and stature, landing a job in a company where he is rising up the ranks, but he’s discontent. He does some boxing on the side behind closed doors, in places that no one of any repute has heard of but he strives to be like his deceased father. He wants to be a boxer, ditching his job, leaving his step-mother’s lavish home behind to start on his own hero’s journey.

And  unsurprisingly his dreams take him to that gem of a city — the City of Brotherly Love — Philadelphia, to seek out a man who now runs a humble Italian restaurant christened “Adrian’s.” Donnie walks into this establishment with a mission, to get to know the former rival of his father, to get this aging man to train him in his own boxing career.

Rocky Balboa (Stallone reprising his role) is not about that life anymore. Content with simplicity and the memories that are left from his many years in the ring. If his restaurant is any indication, it stands as a testament of the love he still holds for his wife, who passed away. He visits her every week at the local cemetery still sharing his life with her like his closest confidante.

It’s moments like these that suggest that director Ryan Coogler’s film is a cut above some of the previous offerings. It’s this fascinating idea of a transgenerational film — it’s Rocky for the millennial generation but it shows a certain deference and even wistful reverence for its past — even the music constantly hinting at Bill Conti’s iconic score. But that should not be mistaken for being stuck in the past because with Michael B. Jordan in the lead, he motors the story forward with his own Rocky-like resolve.

Yes, his daddy is Apollo Creed, but he’s looking to make a name for himself apart from that. He starts calling on the girl downstairs — the local singer-songwriter Bianca and his relationship with “Uncle” Rocky quickly grows. They’re family now. And for boxing fans, Creed has its fair share of training sequences, buildup, and such, as Creed himself becomes an underdog facing off against world champion Jack Conlon. But if that’s all that Creed was, I would have been content going back to the original Rocky.

However, Creed suggests something very powerful as noted by Rocky early on. Time takes everyone out, time’s undefeated. There are affectionate callbacks to Adrian (the restaurant) and Paulie (Adonis stays in his old bedroom), even Apollo. But all of them are gone now. All of them lost against time. And Rocky nearly does as well. It’s inevitable. However, with the story of young Adonis we are reminded that there’s still room for hope and dreams and love and caring about other people. Those are things to be treasured.

Here Ryan Coogler has proven once more that he is a rising director crafting compelling films. Teaming up again with Michael B. Jordan after the searing Fruitvale Station, he fills the blockbuster with the same ambiance of an independent film with hot dog vendors and little bits of everyday authenticity. There’s a certain amount of documentary realism that still manages to be cinematic and at the same time surprisingly personal. So if you love Rocky go see Creed. If you love boxing go see Creed. But beyond that, it’s a film with a great deal to offer and I was heartily impressed in how it balances the past and the present with so much poise.

4/5 Stars

Review: Rocky (1976)

rocky2The original installment of the popular franchise, Rocky was the pinnacle, and despite innumerable remakes, it still has never been eclipsed.  World Champion heavyweight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) even outlines why Rocky is, in fact, so popular. There’s nothing more American than an underdog story. A bum, an Italian Stallion, duking it out with the big boys and getting a shot to prove himself. From Creed’s point of view it’s all part of the act, a fine publicity stunt to bring in the public, but the film Rocky works on a similar principle. Most people relate to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), and maybe at the very least, they can find it within themselves to root for his character even if he’s different then them. The beauty of this film is that Stallone and his creation were unknowns. They were nobodies. By the time all the sequels came out he certainly had garnered a following, but some of the intrigue of this whole narrative was lost in the process. He no longer felt like a long shot.

Furthermore, this film could have easily been a run-of-the-mill boxing movie. We’ve seen acclaimed performances in them before from people like Brando or even Kirk Douglas and John Garfield. But the character of Rocky makes all the difference, allowing the old standard to work once more. He’s a bum like most of the film boxers we ever became acquainted with, and he’s a little short in the brains department, but perhaps without even knowing it he good-naturedly embodies the spirit of his native Philadelphia. We cannot understand what he grunts half the time, but his actions reflect “The City of Brotherly Love.”

rocky1He cares about others on a level that some people don’t dare, and it even creeps into his work as an enforcer when his boxing prospects aren’t good. He doesn’t like being hurt or made fun off, but at his core, he’s a gentle spirit. He can’t bring himself to break a man’s fingers, he wants the kids to get off the streets and uphold their reputations. Above, all he constantly cracks jokes to the younger sister of his best friend Paulie (Burt Young). Her own brother won’t give Adrian (Talia Shire) the time of day, but despite her timidity, Rocky pops in on her everyday holding one-sided conversations at the pet shop. It doesn’t feel like simple common courtesy. He really likes her and grows to care about her. So really if this movie was just about boxing it would probably have faded away with so many other like-minded movies.

In the narrative, Rocky goes through all the hoops and finally reconciles with veteran trainer Micky Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), who looks to live vicariously through Balboa. He also deals with Paulie, who is prone to drinking which leads to volatile outbursts. And he even grapples with the media attention that comes courtesy of a bout with Creed. The montage of his training has become a thing of legend, hands outstretched with Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” ringing out over the steps below him.

Then there’s the showdown that the whole film culminates to and it’s nothing unusual, nothing we wouldn’t expect, but that’s the beauty of it because we want it anyway. We finally see everything on the line. Everything that Rocky has been working for is either to be realized or dashed to pieces. Well, the ending is a bit of a cop out, but you need some way to start the next sequel, right? This storyline is simple, almost naive in a way, but sometimes films like that are enjoyable and necessary. Every once and awhile we need a good underdog story to lift our spirits.

Sylvester Stallone burst onto the scene in lovable fashion and just like the film itself, I’m not sure he ever topped his original characterization of Rocky. He might be a broken coconut upstairs, but he certainly has a lot of heart. Humor me for just one moment because I have to say it at least once, “Yo Adrian!”

4.5/5 Stars

Rocky (1976)

Maybe not the greatest film of all time, Rocky is however one of the most heartwarming and greatest sports films ever. Sylvester Stallone gives a likable performance as the title nobody who defies the odds. Combining the cheering story with some famous sequences and a great theme you get something very memorable.

*May Contain Spoilers

The original film that shot Sylvester Stallone to stardom, Rocky tells the tale of a boxer who receives the chance of a lifetime. Rocky Balboa is a mediocre boxer who has no real chance of becoming anything. However he is spotted by a world champion boxer Apollo Creed who wishes to face Rocky as a publicity stunt. Here Rocky finally has the chance to prove himself and become something. In some iconic scenes he trains in his buddy’s meat freezer with the famous theme playing in the background. When the day of the fight comes it is evident that Rocky is no fluke and he may even have a chance to win. What makes this movie so touching is Rocky’s humble beginnings and his lovable personality. He may be slow but you want him to succeed because he is so kindhearted. This movie was so popular that it led to many sequels but nothing quite beats the original. Yo Adrian!

5/5 Stars