Creed ★★★★★

Last year around this time, when major critics and hard-core cinephiles alike were compiling their best of the year lists, I saw "Creed" pop up on a surprising number of them. At the time I thought: C'mon, it can't possibly be that good. None of the other "Rocky" movies were that good.

I stand corrected.

I mean, Holy Shit...I can't even. This has to be the best boxing-related movie ever made (and, yes, I am aware of the existence of "Raging Bull", but the central character of that movie is such an intolerable asshole that I've never been able to make it through the film more than once). It is satisfying every step of the way, avoiding sports cliches for the most part but humanizing them whenever it does choose to embrace one. In fact, it delves into its characters more deeply than most blockbuster films do, and certainly more than most entries into film franchises that have been trucking along for four decades. And it does so without trashing any of the movies that came before. Not only does "Creed" acknowledge the "Rocky" legacy, even the sillier aspects of it, it enhances and elevates them. It's a movie so good that it makes the previous Rocky movies look better.

Among other things, "Creed" drew tears from me more efficiently than any film I've seen in a while.

Michael B. Jordan is incredible here. He managed to make me care immediately about him and to root for him even at his prickliest. He's sympathetic without being saintly. He's a fully formed human being, one that's highly relatable and wholly remarkable. Not only is he an interesting character, he's a rousing and tenacious one. As is his love interest, played by Tessa Thompson. I've recently enjoyed here on "Westworld", but I liked her even more here. "Love interest" isn't a strong enough word for what she does here. Like Jordan, she's given a three-dimensional character and she nails every aspect of it. Each of them gives multi-layered performances brought to life by a thousand tiny moments and gestures, by details that lesser actors wouldn't have contributed and that a director less talented than Ryan Coogler wouldn't have thought to add. Coogler and Jordan's contributions to this film are so strong that I need to seek out their earlier work, "Fruitvale Station", immediately. If he can take a franchise as played out as "Rocky" and breathe such life into life, Life such as it has never possessed before, then a true story about a young man gunned down by the police must be harrowing and beautiful in their hands.

But the real revelation here is Sylvester Stallone. Stallone has never, ever been this good before. The reason for this, I believe, is that Stallone has never allowed himself to be this vulnerable before. He's tired and weak here, weary in a way that I've never seen him, and he's incredible. The old slab of meat genuinely moved me here. He evoked tears from me. I never suspected he had it in him. Sure, he was good in the original "Rocky". Great, even. But his work here is lightyears beyond that. It is thoroughly couched in humanity and little touches, like Jordan and Thompson's work, but seeing this beefcake play such a broken-down variation on what is, arguably, his strongest character affected me in a way I wouldn't have expected. It's beautiful work, better than even DeNiro has done in decades. I was moved and amazed.

But this isn't just a touching character study, it's also a boxing movie...and the boxing sequences deliver. There are only a couple of them, but they are stunning. The camera work, the energy, the fight choreography, it's all top notch. It's at least as good as the work Scorsese did in "Raging Bull", and it's put to use with characters that are far more effective than DeNiro's there. (Sorry, I just really loved these characters and wanted to see them succeed, whereas LaMotta is very hard to spend time with. I know that's the point, but the movie around him just isn't, for me, great enough to justify spending time with such a horrible person. But I'll stop denigrating that movie to praise this one, because "Creed" is strong enough to stand on its own without comparisons to anything.) Coogler handles every aspect of this film perfectly. It's a towering piece of work, one that really did deserve to be on all of those top ten lists.

I may not have swooned for "Fury Road", the other critical darling that ended up on multiple top ten lists, but I am all in on "Creed". It's energetic, touching, and absolutely rousing. It's a glorious human story, a galvanizing sports movie...it's just awesome. It makes me want to go back and watch the other "Rocky" movies...even though I suspect none of them will move me as much as this one does. Even the soundtrack and score are perfect here. If you haven't seen "Creed" yet just do yourself a favor and watch it. It really is as good as everyone says. In fact, I think it's even better.

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