Creed (2015)

Ryan Coogler lets his camera float like a butterfly and his performers sting like bees in stunning final Rocky instalment.

creedUSA
4.5*

Director:
Ryan Coogler

Screenwriters:
Ryan Coogler

Aaron Covington
Director of Photography:
Maryse Alberti

Running time: 135 minutes

Technically “Rocky VII,” Creed is the first film in the 40-year-old Rocky franchise not to be penned by Sylvester Stallone, but while it is light on the rivalry between the boxers and is in many subtle ways unlike its predecessors, this is a staggering work of art.

The main reason lies with director Ryan Coogler, the 29-year-old wunderkind whose pulverising début feature, Fruitvale Station, was a runaway success at the 2013 Sundance and Cannes film festivals, where it won top awards at both: the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award at the former, the special jury prize for début films entitled “Prix de l’avenir” in the prestigious Un certain regard section at the latter. To Creed, Coogler brings visual poetry during the action scenes, and from his two leads – Michael B. Jordan and Stallone himself – he draws forceful performances wholly untainted by the sentiment the story requires almost by definition.

Opening in what appears to be a juvenile detention centre in Los Angeles in 1998, the film introduces us to the young Adonis Johnson, who gets into trouble on a regular basis. He is the son of Apollo Creed, who so memorably defeated Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at the end of the first film and went on to become friends with him until his death in the ring in Rocky IV.

Although Adonis never knew his father, who died a few months before the birth of his illegitimate son, Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), turns up to adopt him. He spends the next 17 years in her care, rising in the world of LA finance while making nocturnal trips across the border to fight in Tijuana. Then, one day, he decides to give it all up and focus full-time on his boxing. Understandably, Mary Anne is none too pleased. Adonis then takes things to the next level by travelling to Philadelphia to solicit the help of Rocky Balboa, and in the very first scene between these two men, one a seasoned prize fighter nearly 70 years old, the other a brash and well-pedigreed but entirely inexperienced amateur, the acting takes our breath away.

Coogler’s talent for bringing out the best in his actors should not come as a surprise to anyone who saw his first film, and despite the much larger budget he had at his disposal for Creed, his focus on acting delivers Stallone’s best performance in many a decade along with yet another very well-crafted portrayal by Jordan. In the end, this film is all about the play by the actors and between the characters, as the story itself, stretched over 135 minutes, has some weak spots (a love story that seems a little too “meant-to-be”) and basically builds up to the big final fight with little meat up to that point, late in the film, when the Rocky theme song stirs us to our bones.

The structure takes its form from the formula, in that our main character is a young boxer who has to beat the odds to bring down the best of the best. The latter in this case is world light heavyweight champion Ricky Conlan, who is about to retire but is looking for one last brawl. Luckily, Stallone knows the ropes, and he is firmly in Adonis’s corner, because it gives him a very definite purpose at this point towards the end of his life.

Complementing the fine examples of acting is a masterful visual style that does not have the usual highlights nor moments of stasis but instead raises the bar throughout. Besides the two attention-grabbing Steadicam shots – the first is the opening shot, the second is the “entering the ring” scene that visually recalls Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, perhaps the greatest boxing film of all time – Coogler also stages his fights with breathtaking flair by shooting them up close (the camera appears to be inside the ring, although there clearly has to be some visual trickery), yet the movements are always graceful, even feather-like, and utterly mesmerising.

While not forgoing it completely, Coogler heavily alters the classic training montage – a staple of the Rocky films – by making it less sentimental. He does this by using the rap song “Bridging the Gap” by Nas, which very appropriately concerns the relationship between a father and son, on the soundtrack instead of Bill Conti’s celebrated theme song, and he also highlights the exercise and the struggle while mostly abandoning the sickly-sweet-trajectory-towards-a-crescendo structure this sequence used to have in previous instalments. The changes make this a very different film from its predecessors, but it remains grounded in tradition thanks to the presence and dedication of Stallone as the irreplaceable Rocky.

The only place where the film trips up is during a wholly unnecessary alternating montage between Creed and Conlan, which seems superfluous and too conventional for this entry that in so many other respects departs from tradition.

Creed could easily have been a contrived piece of storytelling about one man’s desire to rid himself of his father’s ghost while embracing his own talents – exactly the point where his character overlaps with that of his father, whom he never knew. One need look no further than the Stallone–De Niro boxing film Grudge Match for evidence that the ride can be wobbly even when the talent is good.

Instead, it turns out to be a bravura work of art that once again affirms the undeniable talent of this director who has not even turned 30 yet and has already produced two towering works of stimulation for the senses and the intellect. Stallone delivers one of the finest performances of his career, and Michael B. Jordan should now feature on everyone’s list of actors to sign up.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Real-life story about family and forgiveness is brilliantly told in one of the best feature-film débuts of all time.

Fruitvale Station

USA

5*
Director:
Ryan Coogler

Screenwriter:
Ryan Coogler

Director of Photography:
Rachel Morrison

Running time: 85 minutes

Fruitvale Station is not a film about race and immediately accessible to a very wide audience. The story is about the beauty, the frustration, the dreams, the indecision, the memories and the love embedded in one man’s last day on earth. With mesmerising performances, an intimacy that is utterly compelling and a main character that is far from perfect but does his best until his past catches up with him in the most tragic way imaginable, this is one of the best débuts I have ever seen.

The director is Ryan Coogler, who shot the film in 20 days only a few weeks after his 26th birthday. His story is small enough to focus on the details of Oscar Grant’s last day, based on the real events that took place New Year’s Eve 2008 and early on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station of Fruitvale in Oakland, San Francisco. Its more ambitious moments, namely a handful of unbroken takes, don’t draw attention in a way one would have expected from an inexperienced filmmaker. They never stand out from the rest of the production, and perhaps the reason is the dynamite performance of the actor who plays Oscar, Michael B. Jordan.

The film is bookended by the events of New Year’s Day, and the opening scene is clearly shot with a cellphone camera or some other handheld device with low-quality images. The reason for this is only explained at the end, although the documentary quality accurately indicates the origins of the story with actual events. What we get during the film, then, is New Year’s Eve, which not only builds towards the evening’s midnight celebrations in San Francisco but also the birthday dinner of Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer).

Over time, we learn a great deal about Oscar’s life through his interactions with those closest to him: his girlfriend, his daughter, his mother and his tight-knit group of friends. One of them is Cato, played by Coogler’s brother, Keenan. Cato works at the Farmer Joe’s Marketplace supermarket in Oakland, where Oscar was recently fired for turning up late to work once too often. The two are friends, but when Oscar’s attempts to get rehired by the otherwise affable manager are unsuccessful, he fails to mention this to Cato, instead telling him he will start again the following week. Oscar, whose tattoo spells out “Palma Ceia” (one of the gangs in the neighbourhood of Hayward) and who was recently caught cheating on his girlfriend, is actually a very vulnerable individual, and Coogler reveals his character with details that are surprising short but impressive.

Such moments include a flashback to a year earlier when his mother had visited him in prison, and another very intelligent add-on when he sees an ownerless dog, strokes it, before seconds later hearing a yelp from the highway, where he picks up the dog and carries its bloodied body back to the side of the road. Of course, this anticipates the events at the end of the film by showing us how quickly a creature can go from smiling and energetic to still and lifeless. But it is nonetheless (perhaps therefore) intensely poignant and may even move us to tears.

The seemingly mundane, within the context of a single day and given our knowledge that all of this is leading up to something terrible, takes on extraordinary meaning, and Coogler should be given all credit for imbuing his story with both energy and affection that always come across as entirely believable. Even Oscar’s daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), is a natural in front of the camera and cannot be faulted for a single false move or response.

Fruitvale Station shows us the story of one man who has his faults but is totally likeable throughout and whose life is filled with some of the experiences and feelings we all share, conveyed with the utmost sincerity. His beautiful smile, his love for his daughter, his aggression in the face of injustice and desire to change his life for the better are all attributes we admire. This is not the story of someone up against the system, but rather about someone up against himself and especially his past.

It is difficult to believe this was Coogler’s first feature film. Especially the slightly risky move of presenting one of the final scenes without showing us the face of its central or focal character is jaw-droppingly astounding, bringing with it the necessary uncertainty that the scene calls for. I for one cannot wait to see what Coogler does next.