Film Review: Creed (★★★½)

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creed_ver2This is what you hope for whenever you go to a screening…a film you have middle of the road expectations for absolutely knocking your socks off. In the same way that the original Rocky captured magic in just the right way, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in the process, so too has filmmaker Ryan Coogler four decades later with Creed. This sequel/spinoff is not only the best in the franchise since the first one, it’s one of the best sports dramas in some time and among the best releases of 2015 so far. You read that right. Creed is more than a money grab, more than a genre film, and more than a step into the mainstream for Coogler. It’s a work of art. Featuring a performance from Michael B. Jordan that will finally make him an A-lister, my favorite cinematography of the year to date (more on that later), and one of the most outstanding supporting turns of the year as well from none other than Sylvester Stallone, I’d go so far as to say that Creed is nearly perfect. A surprisingly emotional experience, this movie will wipe you out before picking you up, dusting you off, and causing you to cheer. It’s something special, a tale of legacy, mortality, and finding your place in the world. Creed is a stunning achievement that deserves Oscar consideration across the board, especially when it comes to, wait for it…Stallone. Don’t believe me? Just you wait and see what this one has in store for you…

The film begins by introducing us to Adonis Johnson (Jordan), a kid in the foster care system with a penchant for fighting. Adonis isn’t a bad kid, but he has the need to fight in his system, unable to understand why and angry at being alone in the world. An answer comes when Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) visits him one day and informs him that Apollo Creed is his actual father, having had an affair with his now deceased mother. Mary Anne takes Adonis home and he grows up into a fine young man, one who has a blossoming career in finance. On weekends though, Adonis heads down to Mexico for under the radar prizefights, having the need to box in his blood. Eventually, he quits his job, moves from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and seeks out the person who might have known his father best…retired champion Rocky Balboa (Stallone). Adonis wants Rocky to train him, but the man he finds is a shell of his former self, breaking down physically and alone, having lost everyone who means anything to him. Initially reluctant, once he understands who Adonis is and why he’s there, he takes him on. When a first foray into professional boxing leads to the world finding out that Adonis Johnson is actually Adonis Creed, public interest is piqued, including that of Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish), manager of champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). Conlan is about to go to jail on gun charges and wants one more fight to provide for his family, so a chance to beat a Creed is just what Holiday has in mind. As Adonis begins to prep for a fight he has almost no chance of winning, while also beginning a relationship with his neighbor, a talented singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), Rocky has to deal with a fight of his own that he may not be able to win. Some of it sounds cliched, sure, but it’s all done with so much heart and technical precision that you’ll be applauding, cheering, and perhaps even crying before all is said and done.

creed-stallone-jordan-620As much as this is about the rise of Adonis and a showcase for Michael B. Jordan, Creed is also about the inevitable fall of the Italian Stallion, and as such gives Sylvester Stallone not only his most affecting turn as Rocky (better than in the original Rocky or what was originally his swan song, Rocky Balboa), but what I think is easily the best performance of his career. Stallone is outstanding in this role, bringing all of the joy and pain that Balboa has gone through in his life and putting it right there on his face. The script is never overt in referencing events from his past, but Stallone suggests them brilliantly. I can’t believe that I’m writing this, but Stallone has a scene that will almost certainly bring a tear to your eye. I can go on and on, but if there’s any justice, Stallone will not only be nominated at the Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, he’ll be a legitimate threat to win. As for Jordan, he’s also excellent, taking his easy charisma and charm to a darker place, letting you understand the pain of being the illegitimate child of essentially a folk hero. If he’s not a star after this, people aren’t paying attention. Phylicia Rashad and Tessa Thompson are solid but underutilized a bit, while the rest of the supporting cast, besides the aforementioned Tony Bellew and Graham McTavish includes Ritchie Coster, Wood Harris, and more.

Co-writer/director Ryan Coogler takes the script he co-wrote with Aaron Covington, one that lovingly references the franchise in subtle ways but also is prone to cliche, and elevates it with some of the best visual direction of the year. Creed, for my money, has 2015’s most stunning cinematography, from the deeply underrated DP Maryse Alberti. During the second of the three fights in the flick, Alberti and Coogler film the entirety of the match in one unbroken take, which will floor you. Voters need to consider this for Best Cinematography. The score by Ludwig Göransson is different than the classic sounds of the series so far, but those notes come in here and there, notably during one moment that will undoubtedly make you smile. It’s the little things that make this such a great movie, in addition to the acting. Coogler loves this franchise and honors it tremendously, while always making a larger point, even when just showing you Rocky’s pets or a pair of boxing trunks. It’s simply amazing.

If there’s something holding me back from four stars, it’s that this is a somewhat cliched story, one that follows, in broad strokes, the plot of the original, but Creed is so well made that it’s a tiny issue. This is a magnificent movie that will leave you stunned at how much it gets right. Coogler and Jordan are a team that needs to keep working together for a long time (one last bit of high praise…this is better to me than their last collaboration, Fruitvale Station), while hopefully Stallone is honored for this crowning achievement. Don’t you dare miss this one, regardless of how you feel about this franchise on the whole. Creed is something special, trust me there…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!