Creed (2015)

2018 #242
Ryan Coogler | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Creed

Somehow, it took me a while to realise Creed was a Rocky movie. I remember hearing about the film; hearing its story of an underdog boxer taking on the world champion being compared positively to Rocky; and then beginning to hear kind-of-like-rumours that maybe, in fact, it actually featured the character of Rocky, and was, therefore, technically, a Rocky movie. Goodness knows what gave me that impression, because not only is Creed a Rocky movie through and through, with a major role for Sylvester Stallone’s character, but he’s on the bloody poster — and, in international markets, there’s a bloody big tagline emphasising how it’s a Rocky movie. Eesh. And all of that matters because, while there are a lot of things to like about Creed, I think my favourite was that it’s a proper Rocky movie.

The film introduces us to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed was killed in the ring (see Rocky IV for more on that). Adonis grew up in juvie, getting into fights, until Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him and raised him as her own. So Adonis was raised in the luxury life Creed’s legacy left them, and is now successful in a cushty office job, but inside burns the fire of a fighter. Quitting his job to make a proper go of it, no one in LA will train him, thinking he’s a rich kid just wanting to trade on his daddy’s legacy. Determined to make a name for himself, Adonis heads to Philadelphia with the intention of being trained by his father’s best friend, legendary boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone).

Creed and Balboa

Creed partly sets out to be its own thing, focusing on Adonis rather than Rocky (when you boil it down, the film actually has a similar plot to the much-despised Rocky V), but it doesn’t forget to be a proper instalment in the Rocky saga too, picking up on things from previous films (the restaurant; Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave) and moving them forward (where Paulie is; where Rocky’s son is). It’s unobtrusive for newcomers (it plays as character beats rather than overt references), but it’s satisfying for fans to feel that connection, that respect for the material. Creed sets out to tell a grounded and somewhat gritty story, like the original Rocky, but, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, the film pulls its “existence from what’s probably the dumbest and most cartoony of the Rocky movies. There are overt references to all 6 Rockys in the first Creed. No cherry picking. It’s all canon.”

That influence extends to the whole shape of the film, which follows the Rocky formula: the underdog getting a shot at the big league; a hero who’s fighting to prove himself more than to win; the training montages; the simultaneous love life and/or personal storylines… It’s clearly a new story about a new generation, emphasised by the details of how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler constructs and crafts the film, but it also sits very comfortably as the seventh Rocky movie.

As with any film that fits a genre template, it’s in the nuances that we find differences. For starters, Adonis’ route to the ring is a bit different to the norm. “Rags to riches” is a storyline we’ve seen a hundred times, but here’s a guy who has a lavish lifestyle, who could just trade off his father’s name if he wanted, but who has to find a way to prove himself in spite of that. It’s not just a personal demon: we’re shown that this is a world where only that “rags to riches” path is seen as authentic. It comes up several times throughout the film, but not least before the final fight, when Creed’s opponent taunts him with the fact he comes from such a background, that he’s more like Rocky than Adonis is. Of course, the net result to storytelling is the same: Adonis has to prove his worth to his doubters, and to himself.

Adonis and Bianca

In a featurette on the Blu-ray, Coogler says that “at the core of these movies, they’re really relationship dramas with an action sequence at the end.” I couldn’t’ve put it better myself, and Creed continues that tradition by seeing Adonis hook up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with problems of her own. According to Thompson, “Ryan really wanted to show a girlfriend character in the context of a sports movie that was complicated, that had her own life and own dreams.” I think that’s noticeably the case: her role in the film is obviously primarily defined in relation to Adonis, because this is his story, but she’s a rounded character with more agency than just “the love interest”. Depending how you view things, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Rocky films have often tried to give this depth to “the love interest”, i.e. Adrian. When we first meet her in Rocky she’s shy and quiet, which can come across as ‘secondary’, lacking depth or independence, but really it’s just a personality type. Adrian certainly changes and grows as the films go on, becoming more confident and forthright. Even compared to that, Bianca is more independent, more ‘modern woman’, driving the back-and-forth of the relationship as much as Adonis.

Rocky himself also gets a significant personal subplot, which allows Stallone to give a powerful performance — and, as it turned out, an award-winning one, which is impressive (and probably unprecedented) for the seventh outing of a character. The film draws on Rocky’s past to show us a guy who’s kind of content with letting life go — the love of his life is dead, his best friend is dead, his son has moved away, so why keep going? — but is given reason to fight again by a new family. I did think it was lacking a bit of Rocky’s charming naïveté, the occasional misspeaks or what have you (except for one bit about ‘the cloud’), but it’s been replaced with a genuine lived wisdom that does still feel like Rocky.

Training hard

Coogler, in just his second feature, demonstrated he really knows what he’s doing. Perhaps the most striking part of the direction is that he chooses to use a lot of oners, with none more effective than covering the entirety of Adonis’ first pro fight in a single take. We stay in the ring with the boxers throughout, up close alongside them, following the fight almost from their perspective, with the noise of the crowd and the shouts of the trainers moving around the room if you’re watching with surround sound. It depicts an entire two-round match this way, and it’s a genuine single take (they shot it 13 times, with the 11th being the one used). It’s a very different and effective way of presenting a fight, but it’s more than just cinematic theatrics: to quote Scott Collette from Twitter, it’s “one of the smartest sequences in modern filmmaking. Coogler puts us into the ring and, in withholding an edit, he conditions us to trust in and rely entirely upon Creed’s skills and training to get us out, and he rewards that trust. In doing so, Coogler buys himself the freedom to edit the shit out of the final match. No matter where he cuts […] we never leave the ring. We’re always with Adonis because he’s the only one who’s shown us that he can get us through it.” That’s bolstered by another oner just before the climactic bout, in which Coogler makes us a member of Adonis’ squad: it begins in the quiet locker room, with Rocky’s prematch pep talk and a little warm-up, before the camera follows along as they walk down the tunnel, putting us in the middle of the team, all the way into the arena, the sound of thumping music and a baying crowd gradually growing, and it doesn’t end until Adonis is actually in the ring, ready to fight. Again, it’s all about aligning us with Adonis and his crew, emphasising how much we’re connected to him and his fate.

The way Coogler and composer Ludwig Göransson use the famous Rocky theme is neat too: they hold it back, hold it back, hold it back, so that when it finally hits, just that burst of score makes for a triumphant moment. But then it’s not allowed to take over: Adonis may have been helped by the Rocky legacy, but this is his story now. Neither Adonis the fighter nor Creed the film exist purely by leeching off nostalgia.

Gonna fly now

And yet, as I said at the start, my favourite thing about the film is that it is a Rocky movie. But, importantly, it’s the way it doesn’t just indulge in references, but actually seeks to develop on the Rocky story — on everything that went on in the previous films — that makes Creed one of the very best in the series. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz again, “Creed is the ultimate Rocky movie, because all the other Rocky movies are somehow contained within it.” I feel wrong enjoying Creed the most out of the Rocky movies — like I’m just going for the most recent one, as if new = best — but the major reason I loved it so much is the way it has reverence for and builds on the past. As a standalone movie, it’s more-or-less equal to the best of the original Rocky films; but as specifically the seventh film in the Rocky series, it stands atop that 40-year history to add extra weight to everything. By itself, Creed is a very good 4-star movie, but its respect for the legacy tipped me over the top.

5 out of 5

Creed placed 19th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Creed II is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Fantastic Four (2015)

2016 #110
Josh Trank | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic FourSometimes you just have to see what all the fuss is about, even if that fuss is overwhelmingly negative. Obviously that’s the case with the most recent attempt to bring Marvel’s popular “first family” to the big screen. The behind-the-scenes stories are already the stuff of movieland legend, so I won’t repeat them here, but what of the film itself? Or the version that ended up available for public consumption, anyway.

Reimagining the group’s origins, the film sees young genius scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) recruited to a research institute where he works with Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her adoptive brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and the precocious and rebellious Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to develop a teleport to another world, Planet Zero. When the device is proven to work, the institute’s supervisor rules astronauts will get to take the maiden voyage. Annoyed, the scientists rope in Reed’s childhood friend Ben (Jamie Bell) to help them use it first. But things go horrendously awry, leaving the gang with new abilities…

That chunk of the story takes most of the first hour. Other than being a little slow getting to the point, considering most viewers know where it’s all going, and perhaps not building the characters’ relationships as thoroughly as it could have, I thought it was shaping up as a pretty decent film. It’s not a mind-blowing masterpiece, and it’s certainly not faithful to the original comic, but as a sci-fi movie? It’s good. Not incredible, but good. Well, aside from one truly terrible reshoot wig.

Then the story suddenly jumps forward a whole year, and things go to pot. From that point the film’s ideas aren’t bad, but it feels like the movie was ripped apart and put back together awkwardly, with parts missing, some out of order, and other bits added to cover gaps Awkwardly assembledand serve as new pieces — like a shattered mug that’s been reassembled with lashings of superglue and using a handle from another vessel, which has inexplicably wound up a slightly different size and shape to how it used to be. Considering the studio got cold feet and insisted on massive reshoots, this is quite possibly exactly what happened.

It climaxes with a rushed action sequence on Planet Zero, which was clearly constructed entirely during reshoots (the constant presence of Reshoot Wig gives that away, if nothing else). The speed with which it’s dispatched makes it feel anticlimactic, despite the alleged world-destroying scale, and mainly leaves you wondering how the film originally ended. When it’s done, the heroes return to Earth and triumphant music swells… as they survey a scene of total devastation. It’s clear this hasn’t been thought through. There are still more signs of a rushed production: the CGI used to realise the Thing is pretty good for most of the film, but an unbearably cheesy final scene looks like a poorly-composited unfinished draft. Allowing such a rushed, underfunded, and heavily reshot final act to be released feels amateurish on Fox’s part.

While the studio are obviously keen to blame director Josh Trank for all the film’s problems, and possibly sink his career in the process, I can’t help but think it’s their own fault. It was they who chose to commission a “dark and serious” take on the Four, at odds with their usual depiction, but then wimp out and not follow through on the directorial vision they’d chosen. Despite what some fans would say, it’s this lack of commitment that’s the actual problem. Even in the face of the success of the lighter-toned Marvel Studios movie universe, Too cool for superhero schoolFox like to keep their superhero movies Serious and Dark — and why not? Before this, it had worked pretty well for them across seven X-Men movies, while their colourful-and-cheery earlier attempts at bringing Marvel’s first family to the big screen met with unwavering derision and diminishing box office. It was not an illogical choice to try something different tonally.

In the end, however, this version crashed and burned even harder than those earlier films, both with fans and at the box office. Meanwhile, the latest X-Men movie was similarly ripped asunder by critics and has only performed acceptably; and concurrently, superhero comedy Deadpool took the world by storm. Perhaps this will create a sea-change in the way Fox approach their superhero properties? Only time will tell — though with Deadpool 2 set to offer more of the same and a Wolverine threequel following in its R-rated footsteps, while another X-Men movie is surely in development but not officially announced and the planned Fantastic Four sequels have been quietly cancelled, perhaps it already is.

Fantastic Four’s real problems are twofold: deviating so heavily from the original comic book, which meant from the outset that an awful lot of fanboys were always going to hate it; and then not having the confidence to see that vision through, titting about with things in post. The latter results in a mess of a second half where the whole thing unravels. It’s not perfect before that, but it’s a decent sci-fi movie. I’d love to see Trank’s original cut — I’m not sure it would be a great film, and I’m damn sure it still wouldn’t properly resemble the Fantastic Four of Marvel’s comics, but I bet it would be a lot more consistent than this, and consequently better.

Beam of blue light shooting into the sky? Never seen that before...What could have been a comfortable 3-star movie, maybe even 4 if it followed through well enough, is dragged down to 2 by studio meddling. Will they never learn? Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed enough of Fantastic Four that, while it won’t be going on the long-list of contenders for the best movies I’ve seen this year, I won’t be putting it on the list for the worst either.

2 out of 5

Chronicle: Extended Edition (2012)

aka Chronicle: Extended Director’s Cut

2014 #115
Josh Trank | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15*

ChronicleThe birth of the “found footage” sub-genre and the resurgence of the superhero movie began around the same time, the former with The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and the latter with X-Men in 2000. They both arguably came of age towards the end of the noughties, with the box office success of Paranormal Activity in 2009 and the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008’s Iron Man. It was inevitable, really, that someone would eventually combine these coincidentally-linked post-millennial cinematic obsessions, and that someone was director Josh Trank, who became one of (if not the) youngest directors to open a movie in the #1 spot at the US box office with this, his debut feature.

The obvious route for a found-footage superhero movie is surely in the Kick-Ass/Super mould: a wannabe dressing up in a funny costume and setting out to fight crime, in the real world. Trank and screenwriter Max Landis have grander ambitions, however, setting their sights on characters who develop Superman-esque powers. It means the movie isn’t as low-budget and independently-produced as you might have expected (although clearly not high-budget, it’s full of special effects, and was released by 20th Century Fox), but it does retain a more subversive element — for one, that great responsibility doesn’t necessarily follow great power.

Boys will be boysThe story sees high school senior Andrew (Dane DeHaan) decide to start filming everything in his life, thanks to his borderline-abusive alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) and terminally ill mother (Bo Petersen). The same day (what a coincidence!), his cousin and only friend, Matt (Alex Russell), takes him to a party where, along with most-popular-kid-in-school Steve (Michael B. Jordan), they discover a hole in the woods with mysteries inside… Days later, all three begin to develop telekinetic powers, which they learn they can levy in various incredible ways — those ways being super, but largely without the heroic…

Which, in case you misread me, is not to say the boys become supervillains. Rather, they do what a lot of teenage lads would do: throw balls at each other with their mind; eat Pringles without having to pick up the can; use a leaf blower on a girl’s skirt; and so on. Using the found-footage style naturally, the friends experiment with their abilities, gradually increasing them, and bonding in the process. The story isn’t short of action or incident (some might disagree), but is equally character-focused, presenting individuals who are more rounded and believable people than your average superhero characters.

Rooftop bondingThis is even more pronounced in the extended version (“extended director’s cut” in the US), which includes over five minutes of extra bits that, in my opinion, make it a superior edit. Some are minor in impact, true, but there are a couple of short sequences with Andrew and Steve that deepen their relationship further, which enriches events at the end of act two. There’s also a moment that subtly prefigures the climax, and an extra bit in said finale that seems nigh-on essential to me. Considering the film still runs (just under) 90 minutes even with these additions, it’s difficult to see why they were cut in the first place. “Pace” is usually the rational for that, but if this is indeed a Director’s Cut then clearly Trank didn’t think they were an issue; equally, I can’t see why Fox would have objected. Still, they’re here to enjoy on Blu-ray…. though not on DVD… and I guess they’re not in TV screenings… Tsk.

Some accuse the film of being clichéd and predictable, which I don’t hold much truck with. It’s not twist-filled, but I felt the characters and their interactions grew naturally — if you can see where it’s going, it’s because it’s well-constructed, not because it’s how every movie does it. The time invested in growing our relationship with all three lead characters pays off increasingly as the movie rolls on, too, so that the climax is about more than just spectacle.

Spectacular climaxThat said, spectacle it has. You wouldn’t expect that from a $12 million found-footage movie, but an epic duel through the streets of Seattle is one of the strongest climaxes to any superhero movie I can remember. It’s kind of like Man of Steel’s, only released a year earlier and executed a thousand times better (the lack of mass destruction and associated innocent-bystander massacre is a bonus). The finale is undoubtedly the high point of the film’s visual extravagance, but numerous other sections are striking too, not least thanks to Andrew’s mastery of controlling the camera with his mind, letting it float gently around as he films himself and others.

The qualities of the climax could be seen as a microcosm for the entire film, actually: a stylistic gimmick that works so well you forget many people consider it a gimmick; a scale grander than you might expect from both that gimmick and the movie’s budget; a largely-innovative treatment of a much-trod genre; and, similarly, characters who are multi-dimensional and better-realsied than your average, thanks both to Landis’ writing and a team of top-notch performances, particularly from DeHaan and Jordan — there’s a reason they’ve both gone on to bigger things.

One to watch out forIn the hands of many a desperate-to-get-noticed filmmaker, a found-footage superhero movie would likely have been a straight-to-DVD affair that could at best be described as “mediocre”. In Chronicle, however, Trank and co have crafted one of the best movies produced in either sub-genre. Most of the people involved — as well as the film they’ve all come from — can be classed as “one to watch”.

5 out of 5

The network TV premiere of Chronicle is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.

It placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

* Right: Chronicle was released in UK cinemas as a 12A, but with a couple of cuts for violence. On DVD/Blu-ray, it’s an uncut 15. Meanwhile, in the US, the theatrical version is PG-13, while the extended cut is technically Unrated. However, most of the additions are character scenes, so it’s surely still a PG-13. ^