By taking Stallone out of the ring and giving him a juicy supporting role, round 7 of the Rocky franchise has energy, edge and retro appeal. Alistair Harkness also reviews the 12-times Oscar-nominated The Revenant, and the Brie Larson-starring Room
Creed (12A) | Rating: **** | Directed by Ryan Coogler | Starring Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
The world didn’t really need another Rocky movie. By the fifth instalment, Sylvester Stallone had exploited audience goodwill towards his most endearing creation so mercilessly it wasn’t just the character that was punch-drunk; the movies were too. Staggering around trying to find relevance in a world that had no more use for a street scrapper that had lost touch with reality (it’s hard to come back from a movie in which a boxer pretty much ends the Cold War – as Rocky IV implied), the franchise seemed dead and buried. Even when Stallone managed to revive the character for what seemed like one last (reasonably dignified) hurrah in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the film itself squeaked by on nostalgia. What it didn’t do was leave anyone curious about what might be next for Philadelphia’s favourite fictional son, especially after Stallone himself went on to urinate over his legacy by making Rocky-referencing gags in 2013’s abysmal Grudge Match.
One of the most surprising accomplishments of Ryan Coogler’s terrific spin-off movie Creed, though, is its ability to make you realise just how much you might have missed the big lug. When Stallone (who picked up a Golden Globe award last week) arrives on screen, he’s so true to the mumbling, funny, sweet-natured Rocky of the first two films that all past transgressions are forgiven. That’s made possible in part because the film around him has changed. Coogler, who made the hard-hitting, Sundance-winning Fruitvale Station back in 2013, shoots Creed with an indie sensibility, something that immediately recalls the more-downbeat-than-you-remember-it original.
The other advantage the film has is that Rocky – as the title indicates – is no longer the lead character, so we no longer have to endure Stallone getting back in the ring or putting his ageing frame through yet another training montage. Superstardom has tended to overshadow Stallone’s acting abilities over the years, but on the rare occasions he does play character parts (in Copland say, or… no, that’s about it) he can be great. Here he’s the reluctant trainer to Adonis Johnson (Michael B Jordan), the illegitimate son of his former nemesis and in supporting-role mode he gets to have the best of both worlds: stealing scenes, but also providing the emotional spine of the movie.
But while the film pays due deference to Stallone, it smartly remixes the underdog sports movie formula that made the first film such a success and imbues it with a subversive political edge, covertly exploring race in America, while delivering some of the feel-good knock-out punches you want from a Rocky movie. The film starts, for instance, in 1998 with a gritty prologue that finds young Adonis orphaned and incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre where he regularly gets into fights with his peers. Having been confined to solitary, he’s rescued by the arrival of Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who informs him he’s the biological son of her late husband, Apollo Creed (in case you don’t know your Rocky movies, he was killed in the ring in Rocky IV).
In an act of benevolence she takes him in and the film fast-forwards to the present day where Adonis (now played by Michael B Jordan) is trying to make it as a boxer while holding down a respectable job at a bank to please his adoptive mother who, understandably, doesn’t want him to fight. He can’t deny his true nature, though, so he soon moves to Philadelphia with a plan to get Rocky to train him: in part because he wants to be a champ, in part because he wants to learn about the father he never knew.
Coogler’s clever here about the way he uses the characters’ shared history. He drops in little fanboy references to moments from the other movies, but he also uses the relationship between Adonis and Rocky to interrogate the previous films’ relationships with race, with Rocky acknowledging Apollo as the better fighter and the film as a whole signifying how important Apollo was at the time for audiences of colour.
But the film also functions in a manner similar to The Force Awakens. Like JJ Abrams, Coogler is skilled at stoking nostalgia while delivering something that feels both fresh and funny. Thus we get a new spin on the training montage, but we also get fight sequences delivered with a point-of-view intensity that seems to make the punches land harder. The romantic subplot between Adonis and his new neighbour Bianca, meanwhile, echoes the sweetness of Rocky’s courtship of Adrian, only with a more assertive and independent woman (played by Tessa Thompson) as the object of the hero’s affections.
Like all the Rocky films some of this is undeniably corny, but again Coogler gets away with it because he understands the function such moments have within the wider mythology. Rocky has always been about heart and Creed has heart by the (spit) bucket load.
The Revenant (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu | Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson
For a while Leonardo DiCaprio flirted with making a drama based on the same true-life story that Werner Herzog explored in his documentary Grizzly Man. If experiencing ursine savagery on film is his thing, though, then surely he must have now satisfied that itch with The Revenant. As has been widely reported since Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film started screening at the end of last year, DiCaprio endures the mother of all maulings at the paws of a grizzly bear trying to protect her cubs. The unrelentingly brutal attack comes early in the film and is shot with such technical bravado and documentary realism (right down to the lens fogging up when the camera gets too close to the bear) it’s impossible to see the joins between the CGI animal and the trauma being inflicted upon its human victim.
But it’s a sign too of the progressive nature of Iñárritu’s film that you don’t automatically side with DiCaprio in this fight. His character, Hugh Glass, is a fur trapper and tracker, working for a trading company intent on exploiting the frontier for all it’s worth (the film is set in 1820s America). His ability to survive the attack is not presented as a moment of triumph, but as an encapsulation of one of the major themes of the film: the savage nature of man’s dominion over nature.
It’s also the catalyst for the film’s revenge plot. As the film opens, Glass’s fellow privateers are all but wiped out in an attack by indigenous tribesmen, an astonishingly staged sequence, shot Birdman-style in long unbroken takes by that film’s genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Beating a hasty retreat, the remaining men escape to the frozen mountain wilderness, through which Glass’s expertise is supposed to guide them.
After the bear attack, though, Glass is left with two men who’ve been promised extra money if they look after him until he dies: a callow young trapper called Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and his more mercenary colleague, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). The latter is bitter about losing his haul in the raid and harbours a grudge against Glass based largely on his mistrust of Glass’s connection to the Pawnee tribe to which his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), belongs.
Once left alone, it’s not long before Fitzgerald betrays Glass and convinces Bridger to leave him for dead, never figuring that Glass’s thirst for vengeance will fuel his survival instincts to such an extent that he’ll drag himself hundreds of miles across hostile terrain to make him pay for what he’s done. The film thus becomes a sort of extreme survival odyssey and a near-wordless DiCaprio fairly embraces the challenges of Iñárritu’s wilderness shoot. Whether his character is chowing down on raw bison liver, being flung around in ice-cold rapids or cauterising wounds with gunpowder, it’s gnarly stuff – although the film’s commitment to credulity is eventually undercut by an ending in which Glass’s powers of recovery start to resemble those of Wolverine. Still, Iñárritu deserves credit for getting at something deeper as well. An intriguing subplot inverts the story of The Searchers and even Fitzgerald’s actions are shown to be less mercenary than those of the company he’s signed a contract with. This is the crucible in which modern America was formed, the film seems to be saying: that it frequently resembles an apocalypse is its own tragic indictment.
Room (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by Lenny Abrahamson | Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers
There are many ways to ruin a good film, but the marketing department at awards favourite Room should never be allowed to work on another movie after giving away practically the entire plot in the trailer without conveying the tone, the power of the performances, or practically anything about it that makes it special. That’s unfair to the movie and it’s unfair to audiences who haven’t read Emma Donoghue’s 2010 Man Booker-nominated source novel and thus perhaps aren’t privy to some of the specific plot turns that ratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels.
The good news about the film, though, is that director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) captures the integrity of Donoghue’s experimental narrative, which tells the story of a five-year-old boy who has spent his entire life in an 11-by-11-foot room with his abducted mother. Donoghue – who has also written the screenplay – used the Josef Fritzl case as a jumping off point for her novel, but she transcended any lurid true-crime overtones by writing it from the perspective of her young protagonist, Jack (played in the film by newcomer Jacob Tremblay, just seven years old when shooting started). Abrahamson let us see the world from Jack’s point of view. The full horror of his situation and the crimes perpetrated against his “Ma” (played by Brie Larson) are revealed incrementally and suggestively and Abrahamson – working with director of photography Danny Cohen – captures the subjective experience of childhood through lots of low camera angles and shallow focus cinematography.
The latter also helps convey how the tiny space in which the film is set can be someone’s whole world, as expansive as one’s imagination will allow – something that reinforces the themes of the film. This may be a harrowing story of incarceration, but it’s also a moving one of survival, and the remarkable resilience of Ma in the face of unspeakable horrors is brilliantly done as we see the routines she’s adopted to protect Jack from the ugly truth, including daily exercises, de facto schooling and a desperate and heartbreaking attempt to make their captor (Sean Bridgers) seem non-threatening for the sake of Jack’s psychological wellbeing.
But the way in which the film is structured also reinforces how imprisonment can work on many different levels, some not necessarily bound by four walls. This reinforces how Jack and Ma’s survival becomes almost more dependent on the love they share for each other. Which sounds like heavy going, and at times it is, but it’s also utterly compelling and Larson’s performance – which has already started picking up major awards – really is remarkable. Just stay away from that trailer.