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Creed II (2018, Steven Caple Jr.)

At no point in Creed II does anyone remark on the odds of Michael B. Jordan boxing the son of the man who killed his father. It’s all matter-of-fact. The sportscasters all seem to think it’s perfectly normal Dolph Lundgren spent the thirty-ish years since Rocky IV training his son to someday defeat the son of his adversary in that film. Well, his first adversary. Because Sylvester Stallone is actually the one who beat Lundgren back in Rocky IV, something this film barely acknowledges. Because Creed II isn’t a father and son movie. There’s a nod to it for Lundgren and son Florian Munteanu, which is weird and cheap as Lundgren’s been mentally abusing musclebound giant Munteanu for decades and probably physically as well. But Stallone and Jordan? They don’t have some de facto father and son thing going here. Neither of them are really in it enough.

Of course, they’re in the movie. Lots. Most of the time. The film splits between Lundgren and Munteanu, Jordan, and Stallone. Stallone visits Jordan from time to time and maybe once vice versa, but they’re separate. Except for training montages and the setup to training montages. Juel Taylor and Stallone’s screenplay is absolutely terrified of developing the relationship between Jordan and Stallone here. The script also isn’t big on… well… good character development. Jordan, Stallone, and Lundgren all have character development arcs. Jordan, for example, has to understand why he wants to fight Munteanu. As well as have a baby with probably wife but they seem to have cut the wedding scene, which is weird, Tessa Thompson. At its best, Creed II is about Jordan and Thompson and then everything else, Stallone and Lundgren filling out the background. They’re looming threats.

But Stallone’s arc? It’s hackneyed and rushed. Creed II moves through its two hour and ten minute run time but it skips over everything to stick to its big boxing match finale schedule. No matter how much time gets spent giving Jordan and Thompson their salad days time, it’s still not enough. Thompson’s initial pseudo-character arc fizzles fast. The subsequent hints at more for her are occasionally deft, but really just keep Thompson in a holding pattern until it’s time’s up and it’s fight night. Jordan’s arc is written with an utter lack of depth or ambition. It’s all on Jordan’s charm to get through some of that arc. It’s like he’s hinting at the better performance in cut scenes. Because Creed II feels light. Even if it isn’t actually light, the character development is way too thin. The script’s mercenary in a way the rest of the film is not.

Director Caple takes Creed II serious. He’s able to get away with the scene where Lundgren tries to intimidate Stallone in Stallone’s picturesque little Italian restaurant. And it’s a lot to get away with because the script doesn’t even pretend they can work an arc for Stallone and Lundgren. Creed II also ignores how Lundgren remorselessly killed Jordan’s dad thirty years ago. It acknowledges it, but ignores it. Lundgren tries in an impossible role. It isn’t a significant success, but it’s far from a failure and–like everyone else–Lundgren’s taking it seriously. It helps.

It also hurts because there are all the missed opportunities. If only the script took itself more seriously, there’d be so many possibilities. But Taylor and Stallone don’t have a good enough story to play it straight. Instead Caple and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau have to make it play. At one point Lundgren and Munteanu wordlessly survey the Philadelphia Museum of Art with their minds set on destroying Jordan. Because it’s a father and son thing against Stallone and Jordan. Only it’s not. Because Taylor and Stallone haven’t got the story for it. It’s kind of depressing.

Well, the more you think about it, the more depressing it gets. Stallone, as a writer, went cheap on the character for Stallone, the actor, to play. Creed II’s got its constraints and Caple gets the film by with them, but doesn’t play off them. It’s not like the film succeeds through ingenuity. It’s just Caple and the cast, the editors–who never make a bad move until the postscripts–composer Ludwig Göransson (basically remixing old Rocky music selections but to strong effect)–they all take it seriously enough and present it straight-faced enough, the film gets away with it.

It’s a not craven sequel, except when it’s got to be craven. Then it’s craven. But it’s passively craven. Creed II, despite narrative contrivances, is never actively craven. It’s a successful approach. The film’s engaging and entertaining throughout. Great star turn from Jordan, great but not enough of a star turn because she’s not in the movie though Thompson, good support from Stallone and Phylicia Rashad. And, of course, Wood Harris. Who gets a thankless part but goes all in. Lundgren and Munteanu are fine.

Shady fight promoter Russell Hornsby feels like a leftover plot thread from a previous draft. Snipping him for more on Thompson or Stallone would’ve only improved things.

There are some surprises along the way and sometimes the actors handle them well. Even if nothing slows the film from getting to the fight night finale. Not even obvious character development possibilities related to the fight night.

Creed II is a strong fine. With the script–and maybe budget–holding back on the film’s obvious, greater possibilities.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.; screenplay by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Cheo Hodari Coker and Sascha Penn and characters created by Ryan Coogler and Stallone; director of photography, Kramer Morgenthau; edited by Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, and Paul Harb; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by William Chartoff, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler, Charles Winkler, Kevin King Templeton, and Stallone; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), Florian Munteanu (Viktor Drago), Russell Hornsby (Buddy Marcelle), and Wood Harris (Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton).


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Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

Creed is something special. It’s an entirely sincere, entirely reverential sequel to the Rocky movies, but one trying to do something different with the “franchise.” Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, while extremely important in the film, isn’t the protagonist. He’s not even lead Michael B. Jordan’s sidekick. He’s a cute old man who doesn’t understand cloud computing. Director Coogler, along with co-screenwriter Aaron Covington, occasionally stumble fitting Stallone into the movie. For a while, it seems like his presence is a condition of the franchise license, as Coogler carefully transitions the viewer away from the idea of Stallone as the hero. Jordan doesn’t start the film–the film starts in flashback–so when the handover is complete isn’t just when Creed stops playing at being a Rocky movie, but also when Jordan fully takes on the picture.

Coogler and Covington’s script is deliberate and careful in how it brings the viewer into the world of film (the approach owes a lot to how Stallone’s own Rocky Balboa handled viewer familiarity with the characters). Even though it’s a boxing movie, with some fantastic fight sequences thanks to Coogler and his cinematographer, Maryse Alberti–though without much input from the editors, as Coogler likes to show off how close he and Alberti can get to the bout without cutting, Creed more often relies on Jordan as an intentionally tragic character, juxtaposing him against Stallone’s own intentional tragedies. That concept, the personal, conscious responsibility for misery, isn’t Creed’s point. It’s just an observation from Coogler and his actors. (One has to imagine both Stallone and Jordan loved getting to essay these roles).

Because Creed is, deep down, a rootin‘, tootin’ crowd pleaser. It’s just an exceptionally well-made one and an exceptionally thoughtful one. Coogler’s ambitions for the film are to tell its entirely absurd story well. And Coogler’s not afraid to take shortcuts. He casts Phylicia Rashad as Jordan’s foster mother (he’s her husband’s illegitimate son) and there’s no one possibly better for the role. Rashad brings a gravitas to her (too few) scenes and is always present in the film, even when she’s off-screen (too much of the time). Because Coogler knows how his audience is going to respond to her general presence, not just her performance.

Also very important is Tessa Thompson as Jordan’s love interest. She doesn’t get enough to do, though Coogler and Covington give her a lot of ground situation, but the romance gives she and Jordan some great scenes. Thompson does really well.

And Jordan’s great. He’s got a great role, even if the film isn’t about chronicling the character’s internal struggles. Or even representing them on an epical external scale.

Because Creed isn’t meant to be high art. It’s meant to be high entertainment, just from someone better suited for high art. Coogler, Jordan and Stallone do something really cool. They figure out how to make soullessly commercial nostalgia entertainment entirely, undeniably sincere.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Coogler; screenplay by Coogler and Aaron Covington, based on a story by Coogler and characters created by Sylvester Stallone; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Hannah Beachler; produced by Robert Chartoff, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler, Kevin King Templeton and Stallone; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Tony Bellew (‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan), Ritchie Coster (Pete Sporino), Graham McTavish (Tommy Holiday) and Wood Harris (Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton).


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