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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Thor: Ragnarok

ThorDirector: Taika Waititi

Screenwriters: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, and Anthony Hopkins

Most franchises 17 films deep into their canon start to spin their wheels, cash in, and forget what got them there in the first place. I mean there are just so many that get this far, am I right? I know you’re all saying but 1989s Godzilla vs. Biollante was such a great 17th movie in a franchise! Well for every Godzilla vs. Biollante there’s a Timothy Dalton as James Bond.

That’s right, if you couldn’t quite catch my subtext there, the point I was trying to make is that Thor: Ragnarok is the 17th studio film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s pretty rare to see a franchise reach film number 17 and for that film to be as entertaining as this one is. Thor: Ragnarok basically picks up where Thor: The Dark World left off…or it would if this were a traditional sequel, but Thor has appeared in two other films since the second Thor film, and the MCU has released 8 films since 2013’s The Dark World. Therefore, Ragnarok is more like a sequel to Doctor Strange than a sequel to Thor: The Dark World. So Thor 3 basically takes some of the characters from Thor 2 and Avengers 2 and picks up where Doctor Strange 1 leaves off with a nod to Guardians of the Galaxy 2’s conflict, which complicates the events from Captain America 3. And if that makes sense to you, I have some tesseracts I’d like to sell you.

If you didn’t follow that bizarre set up, here’s one that might make more sense: Thor: Ragnarok finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) unsuccessful in his search for the remaining infinity stones and returning home to Asgard only to notice that the 9 realms have gotten a little disorganized in his absence. Why? Well, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) of course! Those sons of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) are at it again, but this time the brothers learn that they

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Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

both have an older sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), who has escaped from a prison she was sealed within long ago. Hela is Odin’s first born, and she was banished from Asgard for her unrelenting ambition. Now she looks to bring “Ragnarok” (or final destruction) to Asgard. Her first step is to get those brothers of hers out of the way, and so she casts them into space where the ultimately land on a trash planet called Sakaar and ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Now Thor must find a way to escape Sakaar and save his home planet from destruction.

While that synopsis is the gist of this film, the joyride that is Thor: Ragnarok is almost entirely separate from its plot. Humor is the key to this film’s success, and Disney/Marvel’s decision to tap Aussie writer/director/actor Taika Waititi most notable for his hilarious vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows was a brilliant decision. This is easily the funniest Marvel film in the franchise. Every Marvel film brandishes humor here and there, but never has the humor been as clever, witty, and endearing as it is here. That’s not to say it’s not also an action film. Blanchett is wickedly brilliant as the scorned and rejected Hela, and for my money, she is now in the top three Marvel villains ever, only rivaled by Michael Keaton’s turn as Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming and the great Tom Hiddleston as Loki (villainy with a dash of heroism). Speaking of Hiddleston, he is once again great to see back donning the Loki horns. While he basically stole the show in Thor: The Dark World, he has far more competition in this film, but still does not disappoint. The competition I speak of is everywhere. Hemsworth, fresh off

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Chris Hemsworth in 2016’s Ghostbusters

being the most comedic part of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, flexes his comedy muscles (along with his other muscles) and delivers a great performance. Mark Ruffalo gets perhaps his most involved plotline to date and has some fun stepping into Tony Stark’s shoes…literally. And then there’s Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, who turns the mostly evil immortal from the comics into the most delightful occasionally sinister master of ceremonies to great effect! Just to add some legitimacy to this acclaim, the actors onscreen in this film net a total of 17 Oscar nominations combined. Really.

Thor: Ragnarok is the most surprising Marvel film I’ve seen based on the expectations I had going in. The trailers make the film look like it’s basically a video game where Thor fights Hulk gladiator style and Jeff Goldblum steps in to say, “Eh, Hellooo.” Those things do happen, but this is a cohesive, jaunty, fresh action comedy that works very well. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is also not to be ignored, giving the film this quirky, electronic vibe that I loved.  A

Thor: Ragnarok is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes. There are two post-film sequences; one midway through the credits and one afterwards. Both are adequate, but nothing you HAVE to stay for if you’re running late for dinner.

MCU Rankings Update:

Since originally ranking the Marvel films after Captain America: Civil War was released, 4 Marvel films have been released and we are about mid-way through “Phase Three” with only Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1, and Captain Marvel set to round it out. Thus, it is time to update the old rankings, and Thor: Ragnarok is the highest entry in nearly 4 years!

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A
  2. Thor: Ragnarok – A
  3. Iron Man 3 – A
  4. Marvel’s The Avengers – A-
  5. Captain America: Civil War – A-
  6. Iron Man – A-
  7. Avengers: Age of Ultron – A-
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger – B+
  9. Thor – B+
  10. Spider-Man: Homecoming – B+
  11. Ant-Man – B+
  12. Iron Man 2 – B
  13. The Incredible Hulk – B
  14. Thor: The Dark World – B
  15. Guardians of the Galaxy – B-
  16. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – C+
  17. Doctor Strange – C+

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.