Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Alternate Title:  The 7th Round

One sentence synopsis:     The son of Apollo Creed goes to Philadelphia to find his father's long-time rival, Rocky Balboa, and enlist his help in becoming a professional boxer.

Things Havoc liked: Some movie series aren't just movies, but culture-defining institutions. You can hate a particular Star Wars movie all you want, and I certainly have in my day, but objecting that you dislike all of Star Wars is tantamount to rejecting the space opera as a genre, or maybe even the entire popular side of the sci-fi spectrum. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but while a given movie from a series that influential can be bad or good, criticism of the series as a series is more or less irrelevant. If one does not like Westerns, then one simply does not like them, and wishing they included less dust, six-shooters, and horseriding is missing the point. So it is with the Rocky movies, which came to define the entire genre of sports films in general and boxing films in specific. Rocky has had movies of better or worse quality over the years, to put it mildly, but the last film in the series, the simply-titled Rocky Balboa, was a surprisingly decent film overall, particularly considering the context and the depths to which the series had slipped with movies 4 and 5. But here we are, a decade later, with a new film and a new boxer, wherein everything can come full circle.

I have heard a lot about Michael B. Jordan, but up until this film, with the exception of a small role on HBO's The Wire, I don't believe that he and I had crossed paths (at least until I discovered that he'd also had a small role in fucking Red Tails, of all things). Still, I've heard good things about his work in Chronicle, and this seemed like a good opportunity to see what he was all about. And the answer is a great deal, because Jordan is on fire in this movie. His character, Adonis, the illegitimate son of the legendary Apollo Creed, is a well-to-do young man, with a secure, white collar job, who nonetheless moonlights (almost literally) as a boxer in dive undercards in Tijuana. Early on in the film he makes the decision to leave everything behind, his job, his family, and move to Philadelphia in the hopes of finding his father's old nemesis/friend and receiving his training as a professional boxer. The question of why he does all this, when unlike Rocky or other typical sports movie underdogs, he has all manner of other choices he could make, is never really answered (except in one line at the very end of the film), and frankly, never really has to be, as Jordan conveys everything wordlessly, a drive that has nothing to do with the working class and everything to do with self-respect. The physicality demanded of anyone starring in a boxing movie is there as well, as Jordan looks lean and lethal, and the scenes in which he obsessively trains for a boxing career that may never ever happen are as convincing as any movie-boxing sequences I've ever seen. It's one of the best all-round boxer performances I've ever seen, frankly, and while that might not sound like much praise, bear in mind that that list includes Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Real Steel (shut up!), and the other Rocky films themselves.

Ah but this is a Rocky film, isn't it? So what of Rocky himself, played as always by the immortal Sylvester Stallone. Stallone might not have the greatest range as an actor, nor the finest reputation in these reviews of mine (the less said about Escape Plan and Expendables 3, the better), but lest anybody forget, Stallone is one of only three men (the others being Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin) to receive two Oscar nominations for the same film, nor should anyone forget that the movie in which he did this was the original Rocky. I've always counted myself a fan of Stallone's when he's in the right sort of role, Rocky or Rambo or some slurring badass fighting crime with both fists, but this is his original role, and frankly, at 69, he's every bit as convincing as he was at 30, maybe even more. Rocky in this movie is an old man, retired to his restaurant in his old working-class Philly neighborhood. Reluctant at first to even indulge some no-name youngster from California, a kid who is plainly not the first to seek the old war-horse out, Rocky has to be prodded and cajoled into the Burgess Meredith role from the original film. Yet when he finally takes it on, Stallone is, ironically, entirely in his element, even though that element entails nothing like his typical role. Moments such as a standout scene in a doctor's office, where the Italian Stallion is faced with a cancer diagnosis and quietly decides against seeking treatment, or a scene near the end where he has to be helped up the famous Philly steps that he once made famous sound melodramatic on paper, but Stallone plays them with a quiet dignity that I really didn't think he had in him. It's not the stuff of further Oscars, necessarily, but it's an excellent turn from an actor infamous for vanity projects showcasing him as an invulnerable badass irrespective of circumstance. Stallone and Jordan play off one another wonderfully, all without falling (too far at least) into the usual traps.

Creed was written and directed by up-and-comer Ryan Coogler, who made his debut in 2013 with Fruitvale Station, also starring Jordan. I had my issues with Fruitvale Station (to put it mildly), but most everyone else did not, and even I had to admit that the film was exceedingly well made on a mechanical level. Creed, on the other hand, is a step above, shot expertly and with great skill. An early standout sequence involves an entire light-heavyweight fight, including multiple rounds and corner breaks, all shot in a single, unbroken take. Granted, unbroken takes have become the auteur-du-jour calling card recently (thank you, Birdman), but a good one is still impressive, and Coogler supplements the camera tricks with other nice touches, such as the John Wick-style tale-of-the-tape stat-cards that appear around other boxers at key points in the film, and the judicious addition of the old-standby Rocky-training montages. As to the writing of the film, it leans heavily on elements that have always been strengths of the Rocky franchise. Rocky films have always had "villains" that weren't really villains, and this one is no different, as Creed's primary opponent is an English champion with serious anger management issues who, facing a seven-year sentence on a gun charge that is essentially going to end his career, is looking for one last high-profile fight so as to earn enough money to take care of his family, something he needs desperately enough to agree to a fight with an untested youngster with a famous name.

Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately, not everything in the film is as well fleshed out as the villain. Tessa Thompson, from Selma and a number of other films, is the Creed's love interest in the film, a role that is in no way elevated above the previous statement. Clumsy attempts are made to give her character, a young singer and musician whom Creed meets in Philadelphia, something of interest, but these amount largely to the fact that she is suffering from congenital hearing loss and will eventually go deaf. What is done with this fact or this character in general? Nothing, save for the usual routine of three-act movies in which they must fight and break up only to reunite at the end when the main character needs her support the most. It's not that Thompson is particularly bad in the role, it's that the role is particularly useless, to the point where the Wikipedia summary of the film tellingly doesn't mention her character at all.

There's also the question of the boxing itself, which is a sore subject given that the problems this movie has are the same ones that Rocky effectively welded into the genre back in 1976. Simply put, boxing does not work this way, and it never has. Boxers in Creed, as in every Rocky movie, and by extension every boxing movie ever made, stand in the center of the ring trading blows to the head and body that would lay a man dead on the canvas were a real, professional boxer to ever deliver them in real life. Yet the movie seems to think it perfectly normal for its combatants to absorb dozens and hundreds of these blows before going down, even as their faces are pounded into hamburger meat and their bodies take shots that should liquify their organs with each punch. Boxing, at its most technical, can be a deceptively slow-looking sport, I grant, and nobody came to this movie hoping to see the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight all over again, but I do wish that boxing films would occasionally showcase something resembling boxing, rather than the Terminator-style bludgeonings that the Rocky films cemented in the genre to begin with.

Final thoughts:  Creed is not a terribly ambitious movie, but it is an extremely well-made one, a film that follows the old dictum that very little can go wrong when your movie calls for two good actors to stand in a room and act at one another. I'm not qualified, necessarily, to speak to it in terms of its position vis-a-vis the Rocky films of old, but as a sports film in the modern age, it stands as a testament to the notion, already highly popular this year, that new blood in an old franchise can pay great dividends if the material is treated with the respect it deserves. I don't know if this movie is the first of a new series, or if in 2018, we will see Jordan fighting steroid-enhanced Russians or acting alongside synthesized robots. But for now, all I've ever asked for was a movie that worked, and Creed is, if nothing else, unquestionably that.
Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Pixar didn't just make movies about neurology this year...

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