Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

Creed

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed asks for Rocky’s help in training to be a professional boxer…

What does Stallone do? For the first time with a movie featuring the character of Rocky Balboa, its star didn’t work on the script. He didn’t direct either, but takes a producing credit. Playing the Italian Stallion for a seventh time, Stallone is pretty impressive in this film; the performance reminds you that, for all the clichés about his slurring and mumbling, he’s not talentless. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Creed, and it’s easy to see why… Rocky is now the same age his mentor Mickey was in the first movie and is still running the restaurant he had in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. One day, a young man comes to visit him and reveals he’s the son of Rocky’s old foe/friend Apollo Creed. Adonis is an aspiring boxer and wants Rocky to train him. Rock resists, but is then swayed by the younger man’s hunger and spirit. He trains Adonis at Mickey’s old gym from the previous movies and the sequences neatly echo Rocky’s old regimes. But then Rocky collapses suddenly, and the doctors discover he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At first, he refuses treatment because he doesn’t have much to live for – his wife has died, his best friend Paulie has died, his son has moved to Canada – but Adonis manages to talk him round. The bond between the two men grows stronger: it’s father/surrogate son, mentor/pupil, friend/friend. The two then prepare for Adonis’s big shot: a fight against the world champion…

Other main characters:
* We first meet Adonis Johnson as an 11-year-old in a juvenile detention centre. Having recently lost his mother, he’s angry and fights with the other boys a lot. He then learns that his biological father was champion boxer Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. Eighteen years later, and now played by Michael B Jordan, he’s got a boring office job in LA but is also earning cash from boxing in Mexico. Unable to ignore his paternal heritage, he quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s old pal Rocky Balboa. Rocky agrees to train him, and even becomes his landlord. After Rocky falls ill, their relationship becomes moving: Adonis looks after the older man; Rocky encourages and supports him. They then fly to England for a title fight with champion boxer ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan, which takes place at football stadium Goodison Park in Liverpool… Jordan is terrific as Adonis, taking a character with anger issues and daddy issues and either too much or too little confidence and making him someone real and sympathetic.
* In 1998, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) seeks out Adonis and tells him he’s the son of her late husband – the famous boxer Apollo Creed. She offers the troubled lad a home, and – in an 18-year period skipped over by the movie – they begin to see each other as mother and son.
* ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew) is an Everton-supporting fighter from Merseyside and is the current world light heavyweight champion. His reign is due to come to an end because of an upcoming prison sentence. So when he reads in the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, that an American upstart called Adonis Johnson is actually the son of the revered Apollo Creed, he wants him to be his final challenger.
* Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is Adonis’s neighbour when he moves into an apartment in Philly. She’s a reasonably successful singer and musician – in fact, Adonis only meets her because he bangs on her door to complain about the loud music. They soon become involved romantically. She’s not happy, however, when the news breaks that Adonis is Apollo’s son. He’d been keeping it under wraps, wanting to prove himself rather than rely on a surname, but she feels betrayed. Thankfully she gets over it.
* Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish, who Stallone had worked with on 2008’s Rambo) is Conlan’s manager. He flies to Pennsylvania to pitch a Conlan/Adonis fight to Rocky, which would no doubt earn everyone involved a huge amount of cash. His one big condition? Adonis needs to adopt the Creed surname. Adonis reluctantly agrees.

Key scene: Adonis’s first bout under Rocky’s tutelage is against a Philly brawler called Leo Sporino (Gabriel Rosado). Before he enters the ring, there’s the comedy beat of Adonis having to have his taped-up gloves cut off because he needs to take a last-minute shit. Then the entire fight is filmed in one, fluid Steadicam shot that lasts for an astonishing 260 seconds. Beautifully choregraphed, lit and played, it’s the kind of baroque cinema that would have us all swooning if Scorsese or Tarantino had made it. (The next scene has an exhausted Adonis falling asleep on the sofa while watching Skyfall.)

Review: There’s a lovely clash going on here, between Adonis (young, gifted and black, full of attitude and hunger) and Rocky (in his 60s, white, sedate, whimsical and a rather lonely older man who doesn’t understand how the Cloud works). On the face of it, the two characters have nothing in common save for their connections to a man who’s been dead since 1987. And yet, thanks to good, solid writing and two really good performances, there’s a largely unspoken yet intensely strong bond between them. Rather than the kind of schmaltz sloshed all over the similar storyline in Rocky V, Creed makes you care about the characters. The storyline doesn’t rewrite the Marquess of Queensberry rulebook – it’s not far off a remake of the original Rocky from 1976 – but the film punches above its weight. A fine continuation of the Rocky series.

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Next: Creed II

Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)

Black_Panther_(film)_148

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having taken over as ruler of Wakanda, King T’Challa – aka the Black Panther – faces a challenger from his family’s past…

Black Panther is a marvellous showcase for Afrofuturism, an aesthetic that combines African-influenced art with technological motifs. Many scenes dazzle with costumes, sets, make-up and CG-created backdrops that show off this bold, beautiful, colourful look, and it gives the film a tone and mood different from any other movie of its type. As a new-to-Hollywood explosion of design it’s comparable to Blade Runner’s use of futuristic film noirism in 1982. You can feel the fresh air blowing through the genre, and this is indicative of the whole movie.

After 17 consecutive films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe built around white, male lead characters, here – pointedly, unashamedly, gloriously – is a story about black characters, featuring a mostly black cast and made by a black director. It certainly paid off financially: at the time of writing, Black Panther is the highest-grossing solo superhero film ever, the highest-grossing film made by a black director, and the ninth highest-grossing film of all time. Thankfully, it’s an enjoyable watch too.

The story begins a week after events seen in Captain America: Civil War (2016). After the death of his father in that movie, the new king of secluded African country Wakanda is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a dignified, unflappable man who clearly cares for his nation and takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s officially crowned after an elaborate and ritualistic ceremony, which is a scene that risks dragging the movie into po-faced territory. Thankfully, there’s some comic relief from T’Challa’s cheeky sister, Shuri (a sparkling Letitia Wright), who as the story progresses acts as Q to his James Bond. The king also has an entertainingly grumpy bodyguard called Okoye (played by Danai Gurira, who has badass form after her stint in The Walking Dead), while Hollywood old hands Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett crop up in small roles.

But all is not copacetic is the world of Wakanda. Just like the Amazonian paradise seen in Wonder Woman – that other recent superhero film that broke free of the white-male paradigm – Wakanda is a highly developed society that has chosen isolationism. It hides away from the rest of the world, actively putting forth the myth that it’s a backwards country of farmers when it’s actually wealthier and more technologically advanced than anywhere else on the planet. It’s an odd situation in which to place your hero. Superman, Batman, the X-Men, Iron Man and the rest all risk their lives to help innocent strangers. T’Challa, however, is the ruler of a pull-the-ladder-up society. We don’t see him help a single person other than himself and his allies until the film’s closing moments. (It’s best not to ponder how many atrocities Wakanda has stood by and ignored over the years – just in Africa alone.)

But there’s a dissenting voice to this conservatism. T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), spends her time helping women in other countries and advocates sharing Wakanda’s wealth and resources with the world. This gets the king thinking, but his aide W’Kabi (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) is concerned. ‘You let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them and then Wakanda is like everywhere else,’ he says. Charming.

Meanwhile, the plot kicks off… At the Museum of Great Britain, two men overpower security and steal an ancient weapon from a display case. Surely the UK was chosen by the writers deliberately because of its colonial past, while the use of a museum is a neat comment on the West’s appropriation of African heritage and culture; we even learn that the weapon has been naively mislabelled. It’s a fun, slick sequence and it introduces the movie’s villain in style. Erik Stevens (Michael B Jordan) is an American with Special Forces experience. Within moments of showing up, he’s joined Loki, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Yondu and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Adrian Toomes as one of the most effective bad guys in the Marvel series. There’s danger and attitude in Jordan’s performance. There’s fun too: as well as nabbing the axe, Stevens also steals a flamboyant mask from the museum just because he ‘feels’ it. Working alongside him is Ulysses Klaue (an entertaining Andy Serkis, returning from 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron). In another loaded reference to white oppression, Klaue has an Afrikaans accent.

When T’Challa learns that old nemesis Klaue has some Vibranium – an exclusively Wakandian mineral – and plans to sell it in South Korea, the king wants him caught and brought to justice for past crimes. We then get a sequence in Seoul that’s often reminiscent of a similar scene in the Bond film Skyfall – our heroes stalk a golden-lit casino, quipping to each other over earpieces, before the fighting begins. At this point we’re also reintroduced to CIA agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman), who T’Challa encountered earlier in the series and is now after Klaue for his own reasons. (When Ross and Klaue meet, it means a reunion of Hobbit actors. As somewhere far cleverer than me once joked on Twitter, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis are this film’s Tolkien white guys.)

After a fun car chase, with Shuri remotely operating a vehicle from back in her lab and T’Challa suiting up as his Black Panther alter ego, Stevens nabs Klaue from under the noses of new allies T’Challa and Ross. Stevens then kills his former ally and delivers his corpse to Wakanda. We learn that – although raised in America – Erik is actually N’Jadaka, the king’s cousin, so he has a claim to the throne. And he’s a far more radical personality than T’Challa. He’s seen the hardship suffered throughout the world by people ‘who look like us’ and wants to use Wakanda’s resources to help them fight back. Swaggering into a meeting of the king’s retinue, he demands a challenge of combat. T’Challa feels he has no option but to fight; Stevens wins, seemingly kills our hero, and takes over running the country.

There’s then, sadly, a rather leaden period of the film as it tries to pretend that T’Challa is dead. (Does that cliché *ever* work in a film?) Meanwhile, Stevens starts to enact his aggressive policies, much to the chagrin of the other Wakandians. It’s a bit like those episodes of The West Wing where CJ, Josh and the others react badly as John Goodman takes over as President. No one’s happy, but they don’t feel as if they have a choice. (Perhaps a fistfight in a lagoon is not the best way of choosing a nation’s executive officer, guys.)

Eventually, after it’s revealed that T’Challa is alive (yay!), he and his friends mount a huge assault on the capital and we head into one of those loooong superhero-movie climaxes of fighting, jumping, crashing, fighting, flying, quipping, fighting and lots of CGI-ing. But you forgive the film the indulgence. Firstly because Black Panther has been – for the most part – an engaging and enjoyable action flick. But secondly because it’s patently an important movie. Hollywood has been maddeningly slow to recognise the need for diversity, and superhero films have not been immune to that. Black Panther is a proud, confident step in the right direction.

And as it nears its end, it becomes apparent that the stylish design work is not the only echo of Blade Runner. There aren’t many films where the bad guy steals the scene as he realises he’s about to die, but it happens in Black Panther. After T’Challa and Erik have fought for the future of Wakanda, the latter is mortally wounded. The king says he can get help. ‘Why?’ says Stevens, tears in his eyes. ‘So you can just lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.’

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Screenshot 2018-09-15 17.23.04