Creed

Director: Ryan Coogler (2016)

The long running boxing saga of Rocky Balboa is given fresh legs and a face lift in this knockout sixth sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976).

It bursts out of its corner to challenge the box office clout of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), itself the sixth sequel to Star Wars (1977).

Both new films utilise fresh talent while returning the familiar fan base-pleasing elements, enabling the franchises to maintain their core audience while attracting a younger demographic.

Of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Creed (2016) it’s the latter which rejects the opportunity to wallow in nostalgia and sets out to make a name for itself, much like its titular character.

Coming to terms with one’s legacy is the dominant theme of Creed.

Although many plot points will seem very familiar to fans of the original Rocky, director Coogler is determined to give the franchise a new perspective while always respecting the spirit of the series.

Plus his talent, energy and superb eye allows him to carry off some moves of breathtaking technical accomplishment, especially considering it’s only his second feature after Fruitvale Station (2013) and he’s not even 30 years old.

Coogler has been astutely teamed up with the veteran cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Her CV boasts of working alongside Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes, Michael Apted, Alex Gibney and recently M. Night Shyamalan for The Visit (2015).

Following the work of directors John G. Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone, Coogler references old characters, re-uses locations and gives new impetus and meaning to memorable scenes.

For long standing supporters of the franchise, the first whisper of Bill Conti’s outstanding theme tune will have your neck hair on end.

Composer Ludwig Goransson uses it intelligently and sparingly and incorporates it alongside more contemporary tracks.

They  share a similar approach to the casting, replacing the old white characters on centre stage with a young black talent, with the emphasis on talent.

The excellent John Boyega was pushed to the fore in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in Creed it is the charismatic Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson.

Black characters were supporting roles in the early films and unequivocally the bad guys. First Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, then Mr T’s James ‘Clubber’ Lang existed to be beaten down and metaphorically emasculated.

In Creed not only is Adonis the central character but he is absolutely the sympathetic and rampant beating heart of the story.

Stallone offers a poignant gravitas as Rocky, the former champ who’s still taking life on the chin.

Never more comfortable than in the Italian Stallion’s pork pie hat, the actor wisely refrains from donning his old gloves.

Rocky’s persuaded to train Adonis, the illegitimate son of one time adversary turned friend now deceased, Apollo Creed.

Creed’s death in the boxing ring weighs heavily in different ways on both characters.

Boxing offers Adonis the opportunity to come to terms with his father’s absence during his life, to honour his legacy while breaking free of his shadow.

Rocky has no desire to see another colleague and friend die from boxing injuries.

Living downstairs in Adonis’ Philadelphia apartment block is Tessa Thompson’s aspiring musician Bianca.

The fluid chemistry between the young actors serve as much as any aspect of the film to invigorate it.

Putting the focus on the pair allows for an introduction to a new generation of movie goers for whom the Rocky franchise may possess scant cultural cachet.

Events allow Adonis a title bout against the world champion Ricky Conlan.

Presumably real life boxer turned actor Tony Bellew was given his shot at the big time to add verity to the boxing scenes.

However he’s a less cinematic pugilist than Jordan and lacks the on-screen menace of the opponents in previous films.

Conlan is well short of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago from Rocky IV (1985) to name but one.

With artifice working more effectively for cinema than reality, this suggests it’s better to employ actors who can pretend to box than have boxers who aspire to act.

Despite this, the urgent and bloody bouts are pure Hollywood fiction in the best Rocky tradition and the story lands some brisk emotional punches.

The big fight takes place at Goodison Park, home of Everton FC. It’s the best drama seen there all season.

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