By BRUCE DENNILL
Creed / Directed by Ryan Coogler /13VL
Risen / Directed by Kevin Reynolds / PGV
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back / Directed by Edward Zwick / 13LV
The Infiltrator / Directed by Brad Furman / 16LV
Before and after his ascension to critical heights with his writing of and performances in the Rocky films, Sylvester Stallone was – like arguably his most famous character – underrated; even ridiculed for the stereotype his muscled physique and less than sophisticated style of speech suggested. Somehow, despite all the Oscars and the success, that misrepresentation is still in place for some audiences, and those people might see Creed – the latest chapter in the Rocky story – as an indulgence rather than a worthwhile extention of a compelling saga. The title character, known as Adonis Johnson before he takes on his sporting persona (Michael B Jordan, giving an excellent performance) is the son of Rocky Balboa’s (Stallone) late friend and opponent Apollo Creed. Johnson wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a heavyweight champion, and he knows that Balboa is the best-placed individual to train him holistically to that end, even if athletically, the elder man is past his best. In the best traditions of the original films, if not quite as effectively – probably because so much of one of the protagonist’s lives has already been unpacked in such detail in previous instalments – the story features plenty of boxing action but centres around a strong emotional core that examines the character of the men involved. Both are flawed – Adonis in his arrogance and ambition; Balboa in his doubt and physical failings – and this adds both interest and conflict to the story. Creed holds its place in the overarching narrative on merit, and that’s a considerable achievement.
A tale with a much longer lineage than Rocky, Risen offers another perspective on the so-called “greatest story ever told” – the Gospel, or life of Jesus – this time through the eyes of a fictional Roman tribune named Clavius (played with the dewy-eyed sincerity he has brought to other historical figures such as Martin Luther and a Robben Island prison guard by Joseph Fiennes). Clavius is peripherally involved in the events in which Jesus plays a central role towards the end of His earthly life, and is then tasked with investigating what happened to the self-proclaimed Son of God after His crucifixion, knowing that any confirmation of the rumours of a resurrection Jesus being the awaited Messiah could cause a revolution. Risen is a beautifully made period piece, reflecting the obvious research put into it by the filmmakers, and it examines the genuine challenges inherent in dealing with an unprecedented historical and spiritual event. It’s a situation that presses every button in the decent, thoughtful, conscientious tribune, and that struggle – and the way the character deals with it – offer a much more nuanced consideration of the source material than is usually the case in mainstream, entertainment.
Jack Reacher is hardly an underdog – other than he is not supported by any official organisations – but he is a maverick whose abilities allow him to complete tasks few other individuals can. The first film in this series, based on Lee Child’s popular books, confounded the naysayers who thought that the diminutive Tom Cruise could not bring his swarthy anti-hero to life with fast-paced action and a gritty plot, but Never Go Back, the follow-up, is as ineffective as those critics feared its predecessor would be. Cruise, again, manages well with the physical challenges, but the material he has to work with this time doesn’t support his efforts. There’s an effort to mix things up, with the other major protagonist being a woman – counter to the macho Reacher brand – an Army Major (Cobie Smulders) who has been framed as part of a government conspiracy. It’s a set-up that should allow for at least a rollicking, explosion-filled caper, but it takes itself far too seriously and somehow, with all the resources at its disposal, fails to convince or even entertain.
There are similar concerns, though not as pronounced, in the case of The Infiltrator, in which Bryan Cranston gives a typically detailed performance as Bob Mazur, a real-life federal agent who goes deep undercover to gather intelligence on the drug trafficking business of notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar in the mid-Eighties. Mazur’s commitment to his role as money-laundering criminal Bob Musella has predictable effects on his private life and on his job outside of that investigation, and the examination of what is initially a sacrifice becoming an idol is easily the most interesting part of the piece. The rest – including the brutal Escobar and his slick, ruthless operation and diversions that include Mazur’s hot-headed colleague Emir (John Leguizamo) – are largely window dressing, which is a strange decision by director Brad Furman. The attention to detail in terms of the recreation of the period is noteworthy, but it is not backed up by a story to equal other perspectives on this same theme, so viewers are left feeling relatively unsatisfied.