Creed II

Creed_II_posterDirector: Steven Caple Jr.

Screenwriters: Che Hodari Coker, Sylvester Stallone, and Juel Taylor

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteau, and Brigitte Nielsen

I’ve said before that great sports movies are more about life, passion, talent, and determination, and less about “the game.” This statement applies to the 2015 film Creed and even more so with its sequel, Creed II. However, that does not necessarily make it better.

Creed II opens with Adonis “Donny” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) “riding high now” achieving the level of World Heavyweight Champion, beating Danny “The Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward) for the title, and propelling him to the highest echelon of the sport. This accomplishment coupled with Creed’s mentor and trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in his corner, attracts the attention of disgraced former World Heavyweight contender Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Drago, whose loss to Balboa 33 years earlier resulted in a life of ignominy back in Russia and abandonment by his wife has been training his son Viktor (Florian Munteau) and sees an opportunity to regain his glory by pitting Viktor against Adonis for the title. Viktor, it goes without saying, is a threat in every sense. He’s enormous, fast, and has been conditioned for years by his father to crush any opponent. Ivan, of course, notoriously murdered Adonis’s father Apollo in the ring, and so any fight billed as Creed v. Drago sells itself in its sensationalism. The problem is, Rocky senses that this fight is happening for all the wrong reasons and if Adonis wants to go through with it, he’ll have to do it without him.

creed_iiDrago

So there it is, the setup for the film is Rocky IV, revisited. And the similarities do not end there. Creed II is very aware of itself, and this works both to the film’s advantage and disadvantage. Director Steven Caple Jr. makes subtle and overt references to just about every other film in the franchise in this film, which is at times rather endearing and at other times a bit too familiar. An example of the latter comes in the form of the conditioning montage. Rocky IV’s cross-cutting training sequence is pretty iconic, depicting Ivan Drago training conventionally (and juicing up with some roids) while Rocky trains in the Siberian wilderness, carrying logs in the snow and pulling sleds. An identical scene is present in Creed II, which is a tad too “on the nose.” On the other hand, some call-backs are crafted with just the right amount of nuance, like the way Caple Jr. takes the conflict of excess versus grit, flamboyantly displayed in Rocky IV, and tones it down to something more palatable for Creed II.

Of course it is easy to get caught up in the familiarity of Creed II, but there is plenty of unique material here as well. Michael B. Jordan continues to put out great and memorable performances, and man is this guy jacked! Creed II is also one of the more dramatic films in the eight Rocky-franchise films. While Creed was very character driven, it was still mostly a redemption story for its pair of protagonists. With Creed II, we get a chance to explore some generational themes that open the story up a bit, especially in regard to Adonis and Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) relationship.

drago

Still the obvious focal point of this film is the return of Drago, and while there’s plenty here to enjoy and experience, Creed II is missing that signature moment that we want, and perhaps we have to fault Caple Jr. for that. The fight sequences and the drama overall is missing the sting, choreography and ambition that Ryan Coogler was able to achieve in the previous film. The technical brilliance of Creed no doubt is what caught the eye of Disney executives, leading them to hand him Black Panther, which as we all know became the biggest comic book superhero movie ever and highest grossing movie from a Black director ever. In that regard, congrats to Caple Jr. for stepping up in the first place! Still, Creed II does “throw in the towel” so to speak when it comes to giving us any surprises or something lastingly memorable. Overall, this is a decent entry into the franchise that while not a standout, will keep things fresh enough to make us want to see more. B

Creed II is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes.  

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

gogDirector: James Gunn

Screenwriter: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell…Sylvester Stallone?

Well I feel both sorry and a little validated to report that on the topic of guardians who are of a said galaxy, I told you so. These films are bloated, overrated, and in the case of the second volume, boring.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, opens with our heroes banding together to protect the galaxy from some massive, disgusting, toothy intergalactic creature. It’s a battle. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) strikes first and is quickly thwarted, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is next, but her speed is no match. Rocket fires his blaster at will, but his blasts don’t penetrate the creature’s skin. Drax (Dave Bautista) determines, he will attack the creature from within and leaps down its throat. What follows is difficult to decipher. Not because of confusing filmmaking, but because the focus shifts to Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing and narrowly avoiding blasts, shrapnel, and slimy tentacles whilst dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” All of the fighting remains blurry background action. This is a funny, clever scene. This also marks the high-water mark of the film, and it’s downhill from here.

Spoiler alert (not really), the mighty foe is vanquished, and the guardians bask in the glory of victory, accepting possession of Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Killan) as reward from a group of golden skinned beings known as the Sovereign race. That is until Rocket pockets a few valuable batteries from the Sovereigns, causing them to pursue the guardians in an epic space chase culminating in the fortuitous arrival of Quill’s father, Ego (Kurt Russell).

This sets the table for Volume 2 where Quill is forced to face and reconcile the deep-rooted feelings about his father’s seeming abandonment of him and his mother. There is much to discuss about Ego, but it would tread into spoiler territory, so I’ll simply say that Ego’s name is not misplaced.

As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this film does not improve on its already humdrum predecessor.  Like all the worst sequels, the filmmakers looked at what made the first film successful and just poured more of that on, with no regard for congruity. This time the soundtrack is no longer accompanying the film. In the first film, the soundtrack was a device to set a tone for the film. This time, it’s forcefully shoved into our face and ears to the point that the damn songs are actually plot devices. In one scene, Kurt Russell takes the time to give us a Master class on the lyrics of Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Also, Gunn and company crowbar the romantic subplot in there in such a haphazard way, I almost thought it was an attempt at being Meta. Quill refers to the romantic tension between Gamora and himself as an “unspoken thing,” so I thought perhaps this self-reference to a “will they or won’t they?” thing might go somewhere interesting. Instead, it simply becomes demonstrative of the same thing that a Meta version would condemn. This is not satire. This is not irony. This is just soap opera scriptwriting.

My only concern before seeing this movie was Baby Groot. I was worried about the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Teaser
James Gunn (screen grab) CR: Marvelproblematic nature of this “cutesy”, silly, obvious merchandising stunt, but Baby Groot ended up being the strongest quality of the film in the same way that “Adult Groot” was the heart and strength of the first film.  Additionally, as with all Marvel movies, Dr. Strange included, there are other elements of this film that do work. The world is expanded with this film to include some new characters including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the aforementioned Ego, and a bazaar turn from Sylvester Stallone as Ravager leader Stakar Ogord. These characters are introduced and developed to various degrees in effective ways. Michael Rooker also returns as Yondu to positive effect, and I do get a kick out of Bautista’s dry, honest portrayal of Drax.

Still this is a dimmer, starker Guardians film. Humor is downplayed, and Volume 2 comes off angrier than the first one. I am looking forward to these characters’ appearances in the Avengers: Infinity Wars films, as I think they will benefit from less screen time. Still, Volume 3 is already green lit and slated to be released in 2020 kicking off phase 4 of the MCU, so apparently my opinion of the greatness of this franchise is off the mark. C+

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes. There are also several stinger scenes sprinkled throughout the credits and one after the credits as well.

Creed

Creed posterDirector: Ryan Coogler

Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and Phylicia Rashad

The first Rocky film premiered in December of 1976 and went on to be nominated for 10 Oscars, winning three including Best Picture.  Several sequels of varying quality would follow and now nearly 39 years to the day of the original’s release, we have the seventh and latest film in the series, Creed.

Unlike the previous films, Creed is not so much a sequel as maybe a “spin-off.” A product of the foster system and juvenile corrections, Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) spent his youth unaware that he was the illegitimate son of world champion boxer Apollo Creed.  When the late Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) manages to track down Donny, she adopts him with the hopes of removing the chip on his shoulder and giving him the opportunity and life that he deserved.  As young Adonis grows up, he becomes fixated on the famous matches between his father and Rocky Balboa, sometimes shadowboxing to the projected image of his father’s classic fights.  As the resentment towards Apollo grows, so does the fight inside of him. As much as he wants to please Mary Anne, Adonis cannot ignore the desire to make a name for himself in the ring, a name separate from his newly appointed surname, Creed.  With that, Adonis packs his bags for South Philadelphia and under the name Donny Johnson, he tracks down famed fighter and rival to Apollo, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the hopes that Balboa will train him to be a professional fighter.

Rocky’s still hanging at Adrian’s, the restaurant he built and runs in honor of his late wife who passed away ten years earlier.  The eye of the tiger is more or less a thing of the past as Balboa leads a relatively calm and simple existence.  Adonis’s appearance complicates things for the ex-champ, and once Johnson reveals who he is, Rocky can’t refuse training the son of his old rival and friend.  With the help of Rocky, Adonis catches the attention of the world light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), who is being forced into retirement by an impending seven-year prison sentence and looking for one final challenger before hanging up his gloves for good.  Much like in the original film in the franchise, a young up-and-comer is selected by an established champ to face off in a battle for glory, legacy, self-respect, and in this case identity.

Writer/Director Ryan Coogler’s Creed is outstandingly successful both creatively and technically.  Jordan showed great skill in Coogler’s previous film, Fruitvale Station, and here he takes another step forward.  His performance puts Adonis Creed’s drive, determination, and principles all on full display and allows a real connection to emerge between the character and the audience.  This punctuated by Stallone’s transformation from fighter to mentor creates the most character driven film in the series since the original and of 2015 so far.  The introduction of Bernice (Tessa Thompson) as Adonis’s love interest is also very well crafted, allowing her character to build as one with her own hopes, dreams, and individuality, not as simply a corner girl/leg-weakener for her man.

The film is also technically impressive.  Rocky films have to deliver in the ring but that can be difficult to do seven films in.  However, Coogler manages to shoot at least one of the most notable fight scenes the genre has ever seen using a steady-cam to capture a multi-round fight seemingly in one shot with exquisite choreography.  Other fight scenes in the film are also drenched with intensity, but the extended shot sequence is remarkable.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, films about sports are as old as the modern screen narrative gets.   It seems most movie fans have a favorite sports movie (Rocky may be it!), even people who hate sports.  The reason for this is that a great sports movie is often not really about the game.  A great sports movie is about life, passion, talent, and determination.  Creed is a perfect example of this.  I expect we’ll see Michael B. Jordan donning the red, white, and blue trunks again soon.  A-

Creed is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.