Monday, December 28, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Creed

Creed was written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington. It was also directed by Ryan Coogler.

Coogler previously wrote and directed Fruitville Station, which also starred Michael B. Jordan (who plays the titular character here). 

Creed is of course a sequel to Rocky, and is the seventh movie in the franchise. It's also the first film in the series to not have "Rocky" in the title, and the first not written by Sylvester Stallone. It's also the first in which the Rocky character doesn't actually do any fighting. 

It's a well written film containing solid performances, especially from the two leads. Unfortunately there are absolutely zero surprises, as it unfolds exactly as you expect. 

Naturally a film starring the same characters and set in the same universe as Rocky is going to tread some well-worn ground. That's just the nature of sequels. But Creed goes above and beyond by copying the original film almost to the letter. Virtually everything that happens in Creed has an analog in Rocky, including the unknown boxer getting an unlikely chance at a championship bout, the love interest and especially the final fight that ends in a split decision. It's for all intents and purposes a remake.

This is at least the fifth of these "stealth remakes" I've seen in the cineplex this year— movies that are ostensibly sequels, but are actually straight up retellings of the original. It's a sneaky and underhanded trick on the part of Hollywood, but one that's proven to be very effective. Not to mention lucrative. Why knock yourself out writing a new chapter in a franchise when you can take the original story, wrap it up with a shiny new bow, and sit back and watch the money roll in?

Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, Vacation and yes, even the uber-hit Star Wars: The Force Awakens are all perfect examples of stealth remakes that came out this year. And with the exception of Mad Max they were all pale imitations of the originals. The sooner this trend dies a well-deserved and horrible death, the better.

SPOILERS, I GUESS!

The Plot:
In 1998, young Adonis Johnson, who calls himself Donnie, is serving time in juvie for fighting. Donnie's the illegitimate son of the late heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (who died before he was born). Creed's widow Mary Anne (played by Phylicia Rashad) visits Donnie and offers to take him in and raise him as her own son.

Seventeen years later the now adult Donnie (played by Michael B. Jordan) has a respectable career in a securities firm. He quits his job though to pursue his dream of becoming a professional boxer. Mary Anne begs him to reconsider, since her husband Apollo was killed in the ring thirty years earlier in a bout with Ivan Drago. 

Donnie tries to find a trainer in LA, but is turned down. He then travels to Philadelphia and looks up his father's old friend and boxing opponent Rocky Balboa (played of course by Sylvester Stallone).

Rocky, who's still working at his Italian restaurant, is reluctant to train Donnie, as he doesn't want to get back in the world of boxing. Donnie badgers him until he finally agrees. Rocky takes Donnie to his old stomping grounds at the Front Street Gym, and begins training him.

Meanwhile Donnie meets his neighbor Bianca, an up and coming singer/songwriter in Philly. They go out a few times as friends, but eventually fall in love.

Rocky gets Donnie a fight with a local boxer. Donnie defeats him, and word gets out that he's the son of Apollo Creed. Across the pond, the new world heavyweight champion, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, hears about Donnie. Conlan is being forced into retirement due by an impending prison term, and wants a chance at one last fight. Conlan's people contact Donnie and invite him to fight-- provided he go by the name Adonis Creed.

Donnie's reluctant at first, preferring to make it on his own, separate from his father's legacy. Of course he eventually agrees, or there'd be no movie. While training Donnie, Rocky becomes ill and collapses. He's taken to the hospital, where he learns he has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Rocky doesn't want to start chemo treatments, as he remembers how it affected his late wife Adrian without curing her. He leaves the hospital and doesn't tell Donnie or anyone of the diagnosis.

Donnie finds out and talks Rocky into getting treatment. He does so, and we're treated to a double montage-- of Donnie training and Rocky undergoing chemotherapy..

Donnie, Rocky and Bianca travel to Liverpool, England for the Conlan fight. Mary Anne sends Donnie a pair of American flag boxing trunks, just like the ones Apollo Creed wore forty years ago.

As the fight begins, Donnie's expected to go down in the second round. Donnie surprises everyone by going the distance against the taller and more experienced Conlan (just like Rocky did against Apollo Creed). Conlan ends up winning the fight by a split decision (again, just like Rocky's fight). Although Conlan won the fight, Donnie wins the hearts of the world, and is declared the future of the light heavyweight division.

As the film ends, Donnie helps a frail but improving Rocky climb the steps of the Philly Museum of Art.

Thoughts:
• Mary Anne Creed is an uncommonly generous woman. She freely offers to take in her husband's bastard son and raise him as her own. I can't imagine many wives outside of movieland who would do such a thing.

• Michael B. Jordan has acted with Phylicia Rashad before— he guest starred on the sitcom Cosby (not The Cosby Show) alongside her in 1996.

By the way, thanks to all the recent allegations about Bill Cosby's slimy private life, I can't look at Phylicia Rashad now without wondering if he ever tried putting the moves on her.

• Sylvester Stallone is now the same age (69) as Burgess Meredith was in the first Rocky film (!).

• The original Rocky was a compact little drama that was nominated for eleven Oscars and ended up winning three, and was the highest grossing movie of 1976 as well. Unfortunately as the series went on the films became increasingly silly, almost becoming action movies. This was especially true of Rocky IV, which was basically Rocky vs. Communism.

Creed manages to respectfully honor all the films in the franchise (including the silly ones), by referencing just the good bits and forgetting the rest.

 The Rocky movies have always loved using montages to depict training regimens, but Creed absolutely revels in them. There are at least three montages of Donnie's grueling training, and even one of Rocky's chemo treatment. If you took a shot every time a montage started up, you'd be dead of alcohol poisoning before the end of the movie.

• Donnie's first fight is a marvel of filmmaking that appears to be one continuous SteadyCam shot. I assumed the producers used CGI to stitch together several takes, but they insist no trickery was used, and it was indeed one long single shot. Impressive!

• When Donnie visits Rocky's house, there's an aquarium in the background containing two large turtles. Would those be Cuff and Link, the turtles he bought from Adrian in the original Rocky?

• Donnie meets a young musician and love interest named Bianca, who lives in his building. Bianca wears hearing aids in both ears because she has a degenerative hearing condition and will one day be deaf.

I thought maybe this particular little subplot was going somewhere, but nope. Bianca tells Donnie she accepts her condition and will continue making music as long as she can, and that's the last we hear of it. It makes me wonder why the writer bothered to give her this tragic little trait in the first place.

I call this "Character Shorthand." The filmmakers apparently didn't have enough screen time to properly develop Bianca, so they saddled her with this affliction to give her character the illusion of depth.

Creed is a well written and acted film, filled with likable characters. Unfortunately it's also extremely derivative, as it's virtually a remake of the original Rocky, offering the audience little or nothing new, and pulling down my grade. I give it a B

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