Creed: Coogler revitalizes a fallen franchise

Seven years ago, Steven Spielberg attempted to pass the torch of cinematic icon Indiana Jones from Harrison Ford to Shia LeBeouf in the disastrous “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

What resulted was a shoddy, poorly conceived disaster that has kept the franchise grounded in a movie-making era where anything and everything has been remade or rebooted in pursuit of the almighty dollar. All too often, this spells a franchise’s death knell for years to come.

Similarly, Sylvester Stallone attempted to atone for the sins of the abhorrent “Rocky V” with the release of the mediocre “Rocky Balboa,” which limped a once iconic character to presumably the finish line in spite of the 1976 Oscar-winning original film “Rocky” in 1976.

Six films in, Rocky had no more punches left to throw.

Enter Ryan Coogler.

Coogler, writer-director of the critically acclaimed “Fruitvale Station,” formulated a compelling and dynamic way to continue the legacy of Rocky Balboa by having him serve as mentor to the illegitimate son of his friend and former rival, Apollo Creed.

“Creed,” which stars “Fruitvale Station” lead Michael B. Jordan as the up-and-coming boxer, packs a cinematic heavyweight punch as the newest entry in the Rocky series leaves the camp of III, IV and especially V behind, focusing on the interpersonal relationships of both Adonis and Rocky in deep, complex ways
that haven’t been felt since the original “Rocky.”

As the only actor to star in all seven films, it’s only fitting that the true success or failure of the film rests on the broad shoulders of Stallone, who ceded both writing and directorial credit for the first time with “Creed.” Stallone shows a vulnerability to Rocky that viewers haven’t seen in nearly two decades, and while the focus is clearly on the younger fighter, it’s Stallone’s character arc in the film that’s most compelling.

At age 69, Stallone is no spry chicken and has seldom flashed the acting chops that earned him acclaim in 1982’s “First Blood” as well as an Academy Award nomination for his performance in “Rocky.” However, his return to the role – which doesn’t seem like a final time with the success of “Creed” – is his best performance this century and is worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, though Idris Elba’s turn as a rebel warlord in “Beasts of No Nation” should be a lock for the award itself.

Jordan, an actor who seems to rise to the level of the script he’s given, more than handles his own as an upstart boxer struggling to make his own name while living in the shadows of his father, the iconic Apollo Creed. While most of the heaviest moments are reserved for Stallone’s Rocky to shine, Jordan is a willing and deserving mantle to place the future of the franchise on, especially with added emphasis on the stories outside the ring.

The only thing that doesn’t really ring true in “Creed,” unfortunately, are its female characters, who are either misused or underused within the script. Tessa Thompson, who plays Creed’s neighbor turned love interest, doesn’t really offer much of a compelling performance as a struggling artist and comes off as
rather brash and whiny. Her plot line feels pulled together rather abruptly in service of the main plot, which isn’t her fault, but doesn’t help.

On the other hand, Phylicia Rashad – best known as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” – makes the most out of a very limited role as Creed’s motherly figure. Every moment she is on screen, especially in a jail cell opposite a younger Adonis, is remarkably compelling and leaves viewers wanting more. The mother-son dynamic Rashad and Jordan have within “Creed” is something that could have been explored more thoroughly in place of the romantic subplot.

Inside the ring, “Creed” is dynamic and authentic, with Coogler going out of his way to engage viewers in the fights from each fighter’s perspective more than a usual boxing film. While both Balboa-Creed fights from the first two movies are certainly more iconic than the battles in “Creed,” the actual mechanics and visual storytelling within the final fight are the best of the series.

To this end, Coogler is helped significantly in the fact that all of the boxers Creed faces in the film were played by real life fighters, a problem the Rocky numeral films all shared. Heavyweight fighter Tony Bellew, though not a great actor in the film, is a terrific in-ring foil to Jordan and helps add another layer of authenticity to the movie’s final scenes.

Much of the film is well written by Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington, who especially show a good grasp on the complexities of the Rocky Balboa character as established in the first few films before who Rocky is took a backseat to who Rocky was fighting. Viewers new to the franchise expecting more of a traditional sports film might be disappointed as “Creed” hits heavy on character based drama, signaling a return to what made “Rocky” so great in the first place.

What viewers should be taking away from “Creed,” however, is respect for Coogler, one of Hollywood’s top young directors, and a desire to watch his “Fruitvale Station” as well as the early Rocky films. “Creed” does for the Rocky franchise what “Casino Royale” did for James Bond and is a must see film in theaters.

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