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December 11, 2017

‘Creed’ packs a powerful punch

How do you maintain your own identity and pay tribute to your origins at the same time? In directing both a spin-off and a reboot to the “Rocky” franchise, “Creed” director Ryan Coogler has to fight an uphill battle as he enters the iconic Sylvester Stallone series. He must define his own style, yet remain respectful of what came before.

Meanwhile, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the film’s titular hero, enters the boxing ring as the son of one of the greatest champions in history. The weight of that legacy rests on his shoulders as he tries to carve a name out for himself. Do these two figures, in-universe and out, succeed in their goals? Goodness, do they ever.

Jordan, who has come a long way from the wide-eyed Wallace we knew from “The Wire,” stars as the son of “Rocky” series legend Apollo Creed. Donnie is a product of infidelity, lost his father before he was born (though the film wisely leaves the circumstances around his death vague, as getting killed by the steroid-powered Ivan Drago feels a touch atonal) and he bounced around various foster homes and juvenile detention centers.

Donnie’s life changes at 14 when Apollo’s wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), offers to adopt him. Years later, an adult Donnie finds himself trapped between worlds. On the one hand, he has a cushy office job with a promotion around the corner. On the other hand, he travels down to Tijuana to engage in legally dubious fights, and remains undefeated.

Feeling boxed in on both fronts, Donnie quits his job to fly up to Philadelphia and seek tutelage under his father’s good friend and legendary rival, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

I get the impression that a lot of people my age treat Sylvester Stallone like a walking punchline. His performance as Rocky, one that should win all the awards, should prove them wrong. Stallone, with a slack jaw and forlorn eyes, carries decades of loneliness on his shoulders.

He awaits death. He awaits the opportunity to rejoin his beloved Adrian. His loved ones are gone, and, alone with his thoughts, he wonders what else he has to live for. At this moment, he meets Adonis Creed, and he’s rejuvenated.

As Adonis Creed, Michael B. Jordan bursts with star power. Donnie has the cocksure swagger of his father, along with the “aw-shucks” humility of Rocky. He’s sweet and awkward, with a smile that envelops the screen. His goal is to prove himself worthy enough to stand in the ring, regardless of whether or not he wins, and that quality makes for a hero easy to cheer on every time he gets knocked down.

A third terrific performance rounds out the cast. Tessa Thompson plays Bianca – Donnie’s love interest – a singer with a degenerative hearing disorder. She first set Hollywood on fire as the righteous activist Sam White in “Dear White People,” and as Bianca she brings that same energy, anger, charm and wit.

Her failing hearing makes her and Donnie perfect for each other – they both found themselves attracted to a career that will one day destroy them. Bianca is not defined by her relationship with Donnie, however. She has her own interests and goals, and the most beautiful aspect of their relationship is how they anchor it through mutual support.

Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington establish their own voices, yet know just the right moments to recall the series’ past glories. “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” have defined how boxing movies looked for decades, and middle-of-the-road affairs like “The Fighter” or “Million Dollar Baby” never had the ambition to break the status quo. Undaunted, Coogler’s camera weaves in and out of fights and uses long takes to capture their intense brutality and physical intimacy.

Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti captures a fight halfway through the film in a single spectacular weaving shot. This isn’t an empty gesture of a one-shot take that someone like Alejandro G. Iñárritu tries to pull off just for the sake of it. It rather recalls the work of Steven Spielberg in how its craft is so well executed that it made me forget I was even watching a movie.

While the original “Rocky,” directed by John G. Avildsen, had a social realist visual style, Coogler directs “Creed” with a self-assured modern verve. The editing is punchy and fast, and Coogler has fun with info cards that flash on-screen to introduce each new opponent.

One of the best sequences occurs in the middle of a training montage (did you think there wouldn’t be a training montage?) at which point, in glorious slow motion, Donnie jogs with a legion of Harley-riders behind him to the tune of composer Ludwig Göransson’s earth-shattering soundtrack.

“Creed” enraptured me. I always had faith in Ryan Coogler. His first feature, “Fruitvale Station” (in which Michael B. Jordan also stars) proved he would show no mercy – he’s a natural tear-conductor. A bold, fantastic artistic statement that transcends its genre, “Creed” moved and inspired me to my core, and I say that as someone with little actual love for the sport. When asked why Donnie chose his career, he replies, “To prove I wasn’t a mistake.”  Well, mission accomplished. You win the round, Creed.

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu.

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