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A RISING STAR BATTLES PAST STUMBLING BLOCKS

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

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Michael B. Jordan’s meteoric rise to fame has been quite charmed. Early on, he caught the attention of Bill Cosby (not exactly a calling card currently, but let’s not be prisoners of the moment) and earned a recurring spot on the CBS series Cosby back in 1999. Other television appearances followed—from The Sopranos to the ABC soap opera All My Children to the back-to-back breakout work on The Wire and then Friday Night Lights—along with a turn in the feature film “Hardball” opposite Keanu Reeves, but the role that certainly announced his arrival on the cusp of the big stage was his lead performance in “Fruitvale Station,” the debut feature from Ryan Coogler. The 2013 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner served notice that Jordan was on his way, headed for the heavens.

Prior to “Fruitvale Station,” Jordan had been part of another indie sensation, Josh Trank’s “Chronicle,” a sci-fi found footage story about a trio of high school friends from disparate backgrounds who stumble upon great and mysterious powers and struggle to adjust. As Steve Montgomery, a popular athlete, Jordan naturally dazzled and charmed his way through the film, setting himself up as a potential bright young successor to Denzel Washington and Will Smith, although far more intriguing, thanks to his apparent willingness to straddle the divide between indie cred and mainstream projects.

In fact, Jordan fearlessly leapt into new projects with both Trank and Coogler, showing a degree of loyalty and trust in these creative partnerships that could easily set the standard for this new age in Hollywood, where young filmmakers are seemingly being handed the keys to the kingdom. Why not ride along with the ones who brought you this far, right?

Of course, it would be easy to say that the industry can be fickle, which would be cause for concern, but in truth, the potential for failure lies as much with the talent as the business. You’ve got to work your way up the ranks, doing what you know, building gradually.

“Fantastic Four” might be this year’s case study in how not to attempt to make the transition from the indie world (after a hot start) to the big leagues. Trank seemed perfectly suited for a tale about friendship and how power breeds dysfunction and corrupts innocence, and casting the familiar Jordan as one of your leads (although brewing trouble with said casting, since it involved altering the race of a longstanding comic book hero) should have eased things, but the scale and scope overwhelmed him. Jordan emerged from the near-epic flameout relatively unscathed; his charismatic glow undiminished.

Yet, the seismic fallout meant that the stakes were a bit higher for Jordan’s second reteaming, this time with Coogler, for the sequel/reboot of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” franchise. Did the world really need “Creed,” another sentimental boxing drama, especially after the under-performing Jake Gyllenhaal contender “Southpaw?” The answer appears to be that audiences were ready for Coogler and Jordan to remind us of what it was that we responded to in Stallone’s long-shot back in the day.
Much of the praise, deservedly so, falls on Coogler, who courted Stallone, pitching him on the idea of shifting the focus from Rocky Balboa (Stallone) to the ill-legitimate son of his foe-turned-friend, setting up a narrative with almost note-for-note beats that would recall the earlier classic, which could be reframed not only for a new generation, but also a moving exploration of a young black man’s search for acceptance, on his own terms.

And that is where Jordan becomes the crucial element. Thanks to his thoroughly engaging and heartfelt work, Adonis Creed goes from being a troubled kid (not unlike Oscar Grant, the ultimately tragic real life figure he portrayed in “Fruitvale Station”) who never knew his father to a young man who makes a conscious choice to fight, to claim a name and legacy for himself.

In some ways, Jordan embarks on a similar battle with his own name, having to insert his middle initial to separate himself from a certain iconic basketball player, but if he keeps producing work on par with “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” the other Michael Jordan might be compelled to cede the rights to the name to this undeniable presence.