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'Creed' startles in its brilliance

By JOEY OSTER/ VN MOVIE CRITIC
On December 10, 2015

“Creed” is triumphant.

It still baffles me how a film can be this damn good.

It’s the seventh movie in a dated franchise.

It’s trapped to the confines and beats of a boxing movie.

There are only so many ways you can shoot a boxer starting from nothing, training his ass off and then fighting for the world championship.

But that’s what is astounding about “Creed.” It feels vastly unique and innovative, even though it’s basically a remake of the original “Rocky.”

It made me feel emotions that I have never felt before as a moviegoer.

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the son of deceased boxing legend Apollo Creed.

Born after Apollo’s unexpected death in the ring, Adonis bounced between foster homes and juvenile centers before Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), finds him.

Although Adonis’ birth was the result of an affair Apollo had, Mary Anne still takes him into her home and treats him as her own son at the age of 12.

The film cuts to seventeen years later where we are reintroduced to Adonis. He now has an education and a stable cubicle job at some sort of financial consulting firm.

But the ghost of his father still flows through him. He commutes almost every weekend to Tijuana, Mexico, where he fights in matches at rundown, hole-in-the-wall bars.

Adonis has a restlessness to him. He can’t be satisfied with his life if he isn’t a boxer. So, like many heroes before him, Adonis decides to leave his luxurious home and life of comfort to make his own way.

He ends up in Philadelphia, seeking out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, reprising his iconic role), the rival/friend of Adonis’ late father. After some convincing, Rocky reluctantly agrees to train Adonis.

Every single cliché feels fresh and green.

Even when Rocky is diagnosed with lymphoma, I was more than ready to roll my eyes. Yet, somehow everything doesn’t just work; it works flawlessly.

Michael B. Jordan is a force of nature. He has the charisma, acting and All-American looks to become the next star.

He brings the same purity and vulnerability to Adonis that Stallone brought in the original “Rocky.”

Sly Stallone shows he can actually act again.

This version of the Rocky character is a perfect natural progression and doesn’t feel forced or kitsch.

For the past decade or so, Stallone has been desperately trying to hold on to his glory days of playing over-the-top action heroes, even though he is well into his 60s.

He’s been washed up, and that’s putting it lightly.

In “Creed,” Stallone steps back and lets Ryan Coogler helm the Rocky franchise and character in his own vision. This allows Stallone to give a genuine, understated performance that may very well earn him an Oscar nom.

The relationship between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is handled with tenderness and care.

From the moment they meet in their apartment building, it’s clear that she isn’t just a device to inspire Adonis and cheer him on in the ring.

She’s a real character struggling to live life and follow her passion. The details of her music career are just as important in their relationship as Adonis’ boxing.

Coogler directs the hell out of “Creed.”

He isn’t some studio gun hired to crank out a franchise film. He is a true filmmaker with something to say.

Ironically, Coogler came to studios with this story and script, which is almost never the case for sequels of this sort. This was Coogler’s passion project, and it shows.

Coogler has a Holy Trinity of breathtaking moments that push “Creed” levels above your typical boxing movie.

In one of the most flawlessly directed scenes of the year, Coogler shoots Adonis’ fight with Leo “the Lion” Sporino in a single take. This eliminates any possible camera trickery, a common tool in boxing films.

Instead of the quick cut “bang bang” of most boxing on film, the camera floats in, out and around the fight. It spins to Bianca in the crowd, Rocky in Adonis’ corner, Sporino’s own corner and the fight itself.

Another director would’ve milked the scene gratuitously as a major spectacle.

Coogler’s close, single take makes this sequence feel small and intimate, even though it’s Adonis’ first major fight. It’s one of the most impressive shots in recent memory.

Coogler, also miraculously, is able to put his own spin on the “running through the streets of Philly” montage.

ATVs and dirt bikes ride next to Adonis as he sprints through North Philly. 

Composer Ludwig Göransson takes the classic Bill Conti “Rocky” theme and methodically turns it into Philadelphia’s own Meek Mill rapping.

Adonis sees Rocky on the third floor of the gym and he can’t even contain the hype of the moment.

Adonis just starts screaming at The Champ, as the camera circles him as more of a Greek god than the mere mortal that he is. At that moment, I wanted to go to war with Adonis and Rocky.

The “Gonna Fly Now” theme has always been the Holy Spirit of the “Rocky” films, flowing through its veins.

Coogler and Göransson perfectly tease this. They save those legendary trumpets until the last possible moment. It’s so effective that it hit me like a train. It leveled me. I couldn’t react. I just sat crippled in amazement as tears rolled down my cheeks.

Maybe it was nostalgia for Rocky; maybe “Creed” was just firing on all cylinders.

Either way, it’s one of the best sports movies of the past decade and arguably the best film of 2015.

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