Creed rises above rocky origins, Trumbo makes light of blacklist

Michael B. Jordan revives Rocky franchise while Bryan Cranston gives glossy treatment to a legendary screenwriter

Monday November 23, 2015 04:00 am EST

It's hard to imagine anyone living up to a name as vainglorious as "Adonis Creed." In Creed, it's especially complicated for Michael B. Jordan's aspiring boxer, as he's the bastard son of Apollo Creed, the larger-than-life champion from the Rocky movies. It helps that the young athlete goes by "Donny Johnson," taking the last name of his birth mother.

Just as Donny strives to be a contender outside his father's shadow, so does the film Creed rise above expectations while acknowledging its legacy. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler keeps faith with the more appealing aspects of the Rocky franchise, while carving out a compelling boxing drama on his own terms.

Creed Sr. died in Rocky IV, before Donny was born, and the film begins with an adolescent Donny brawling in a juvenile corrections facility, a detail that nods at the tensions between the black community and the criminal justice system. Donny gets taken in by his father's widow (Phylicia Rashad), who raises him with wealth but opposes his ambitions to enter the ring.

Undefeated at fights in Tijuana bars but rejected by West Coast trainers, Donny moves to Philadelphia, seeking the tutelage of his father's rival-turned-buddy Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Now a humble restaurateur, Rocky initially demurs, but is clearly destined to be the younger fighter's corner man. While Stallone's work in films like The Expendables borders on self-parody (knowingly or otherwise), he's undeniably charming as Rocky, a dignified palooka with an easygoing sense of humor.

Creed follows the formula of the six previous Rocky movies, with minor fights and training montages building up to the climactic bout that seems like a crazy mismatch. Coogler incorporates references to Bill Conti's trumpeting theme song and other fixtures of the franchise, but frequently finds his own voice: He stages Donny's first official bout in a single, thrilling take that upstages the title fight at the end.

Compared to Carl Weathers' original showboating Apollo, Jordan gives a more haunted, implosive performance that keeps the film grounded even in the face of melodramatic plot twists. At well over two hours, Creed sags in the middle but ultimately goes the distance. It even makes you hope to see Adonis Creed take on the children of previous Rocky antagonists: Ivan Drago Jr.? Son of Thunderlips? (3 out of 5 stars)


Trumbo depicts a different kind of David vs. Goliath contest in a historical docudrama of Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo ("Breaking Bad's" Bryan Cranston) taking on the Hollywood "blacklist" at the height of the Red Scare following World War II.

With the Bernie Sanders campaign reigniting debates over socialism and social justice, the time would seem ripe for Trumbo's evocation of the McCarthy era, as members of the American Communist Party fall under suspicion as Soviet sympathizers. Possibly the highest paid screenwriter of his day, Trumbo emerges as a confrontational idealist targeted by both Congress's House Un-American Activities Committee and Hollywood power brokers like gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren).

Unfortunately, Trumbo's first half emphasizes didactic characterizations amid murky explanations of the political and legal wranglings. The film picks up in its second half, when an outcast Trumbo and his fellow blacklisted writers (including Louis C.K.) figure out how to game the system when studios refuse to hire them. An intriguing conflict also evolves between the writer and his beloved daughter (as a teenager, played by Elle Fanning), a chip off the old block whose social conscience inspires her to rebel against her dad.

Like Anthony Hopkins' recent Hitchcock, Trumbo proves that playing movie stars is a no-win situation. As a bullying John Wayne, David James Elliott comes across as merely a drawling impressionist. But Michael Stuhlbarg, in avoiding Edward G. Robinson's rasping delivery, offers a mournful portrayal that seldom resembles the original person.

Smirking under an expansive mustache, with cigarette holder ever handy, Cranston certainly captures Trumbo's arrogance and abrasive qualities, but seldom engages the audience's sympathy. He seems weirdly unbothered by his tribulations, and given director Jay Roach's glossy approach, Trumbo never seems to play for serious stakes, even as it recounts a dark chapter in American history. (2 out of 5 stars)

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