Sylvester Stallone is no longer just “Rocky”: he is a boulder of stability and magnanimity. Blown away by his performance in Ryan Kyle Coogler’s film “Creed”, I can not say enough about his nuanced performance. Gruff, world-weary and grieving, Stallone delivers a tenderness and a wisdom that is moving and life-affirming. Who would have thought it !
The Director and co-writer of “Creed” is just shy of thirty.
Ryan Kyle Coogler is a name to remember. His 2013 “Fruitvale Station” offered us the last hours of a boy killed by the BART Police in Oakland, CA. Coogler has a gift which allows a work to balance high emotionality with thoughtful rationality. The understated script is like watching real life cut to the quick.
In “Creed”, Coogler directs Sylvester Stallone,Michael B. Jordan, and Tessa Thompson in a tale that begins in 1998 Los Angeles at a juvenile detention center. We meet the twelve year old Adonis Johnson whose group home trials do little to squelch his fighting forays. Alicia Rashad rescues him and tells him that her former husband the late, great boxer Appollo Creed was his father. Adonis thrives under his benefactor. He is educated, cared for, and excels. Then he quits his job right after he is promoted. He has the fighting gene, and more importantly, he wishes to prove to his dead father and to himself that he was not a mistake. Adonis Johnson was the product of Apollo Creed’s infidelity. And with both his parents dead, the anger of his abandonment is one of the driving themes of the film.
Fast follow to 2015 Tijuana, Mexico and we see Adonis’ hands being taped for the ring. He excels in jabs, upper cuts and ring rousts. His dad died in the ring and his father’s trainer now runs a restaurant in Philly. Curiosity and history call.
Stallone out of friendship and a certain amount of guilt agrees to mentor Adonis. Some of the best footage outside the ring is in this training. French Cinematographer Maryse Alberti is only twenty-five. She does amazing things with street scenes and architecture. The running sequence of Jordan with motor cycles revving behind him and encasing slow-motion antics to his right and left is memorable. We know who is being honored at the head of the parade. In the ring, her work is fresh and visceral. Brutal head punches,vomit and blood spray exist amid daily newspaper readings in the cemetery over Rocky’s wife’s grave. Some are not abandoned even in death. The meaning of family is equated with knocking on a door, and there is a lot of door knocking. The head shots and close-ups of the pumping-up sessions are perfect.
The music is beautifully pared with the script,too. Just enough rap and just enough of the original “Rocky” beat meld with soft whispered half tunes which flow nicely with the romantic interest and the nostalgia. The shadow-boxing and rope jumping and hen catching keep their own snapping beat. The score can almost include the sports announcers whose own rhythmed speech often sounded like the rap music. Kudos for the young Swede Ludwig Goransson (Ludovin)for the score.
Tessa Thompson’s role as songstress Bianca is deepened by her character’s progressive hearing loss and by her strong sense of self. She is warm and genuine and not into psychological gaming.Her drum beats for honesty.
This movie has so much to offer,and I haven’t even mentioned the Liverpool, England tryst for the light heavyweight championship of the world. As Adonis (Donny) fights the Pretty Boy Conlin, Stallone tells him that it is “you against you”: “get him out of the way.” The hard body punches made the audience gasp,brutal but somehow elemental. Twelve rounds and dramatic chest thumping has the crowd on its feet.
The ending is lovely as Donny becomes the trainer; and coach and student climb many steps to get a view of their lives. “When you get to the top ,you think you can fly” sounds as youthful as our film’s directors.
One memorable note to the film’s dedication:
Robert Chartoff ( 1933-2015) was this film’s producer and the producer of all Rocky Balboa films including the original 1976 “Rocky”, Raging Bull” (1980),and 2006 “Rocky Balboa”.