REVIEW: Creed II

So, Michael B. Jordan has bookended the year of 2018 with two phenomenal performances; the first he portrayed an arrogant brash fighter who’s fuelled purely by vengeance and hate towards those responsible for his father’s death and the second he portrays an arrogant brash fighter who’s fuelled purely by vengeance and hate towards those responsible for his father’s death – the dude has serious daddy issues.

At the top of his game, heavy-weight Adonis Creed is challenged to a one-on-one with the son of Ivan Drago, the ageing fighter behind the death of legendary boxing champion, Apollo Creed – Adonis’ father.

Where to start with Creed II… look, I’m not going to give you my thoughts on all the Rocky films since, if I did, we’d be here all day; but I will say, concerning Ryan Coogler’s Creed, that the 2015 soft reboot was a f****** great film: a powerful, moving and inventive addition to Sylvester Stallone’s uplifting boxing pantheon. Creed did so much with its story, characters and pedigree, all in one, that, dare I say it, led the film to be quite possibly the best directed film I viewed in 2015. Yeah, guys, I really liked the original Creed. So now I hope you see what picture has been constructed in my head over the last three years of what Creed is as both a continuation series and reboot series of the Rocky films. And finally, what Creed II has seemingly delivered was … [drum roll] … a real solid follow-up to its original that may not be perfect, but did not disappoint.

I was worried that with Ryan Coogler not returning to the director’s chair for Creed II with instead lesser known filmmaker, Steven Caple Jr., helming the film, that Creed II would not meet the heights of the 2015 original. What Coogler’s Creed managed to do so well was stay balanced and focused on writing a character study first and foremost, rather than just any other generic sport’s film. Sure, the feature carried the same traits as seen in every other Rocky film, though with its own fresh take on the franchise’s characters, Creed smartly captured the essence of the original Rocky rather than just feeling like a complete re-tread of it. With a slow burn pacing, Creed was executed by Coogler near flawlessly as I hoped to hell that Creed II would at least carry on the same reliance of ‘essence’ rather than ‘re-tread’…

… but it didn’t. Creed II felt like more of a repetitive remake of some classic Rocky moments rather than an essence-capturing homage to the beloved original… and yet, I feel that may have been the point.

I was ready to come down hard on Creed II for feeling formulaic and slightly stale in some of its storylines since, frankly, the narrative for the movie was near identical to past Rocky features (and just boxing movies in general), although come the end of the film, I could not come to admit that said ‘fault’ was exactly a ‘fault’.

Unlike the first Creed, Creed II was steeped in Rocky’s franchise history by carrying on storylines and character beats from previous decades of storytelling in the Rocky series. The film brought back heavy hitters like Ivan Drago, furtherly resurfacing old drama; in fact, the whole film was basically marketed around the concept of Creed v. Drago – basically, a battle to evoke nostalgia. The film was tailormade to revive concepts audiences know and are willing to be emotionally re-invested in because the drama, the feuds and the confrontations are ones that have been building through the generations for audiences young and old to feel personally invested in. Therefore, through its trappings and workings, Creed II was undeniably a film that studied generational struggles through the use of repetition.

The general term of how ‘history repeats itself’ is key to understanding why and how Creed II constructs itself as a faithful follow-up to its predecessors. I noted before how I felt the film’s intention was to feel derivative of previous Rocky films and that’s because its my understanding that Creed II wanted its audiences to feel like they were watching the same events unfold. Creed II utilised nostalgia in ways to completely blind its audience into feeling the same anger and confusion that Rocky and most of the series’ legacy characters do during the course of the film – we, like Rocky, have seen these same events play out time and time again, so therefore, we the audience, should have an idea of how the narrative will then either play out accordingly or subvert itself. Fascinatingly, Creed II accomplished this arc of storytelling through its generational lineages – there was Adonis working from the influences of Rocky and Apollo and also Viktor operating from his father, Ivan. Creed II was not exactly a film concerned with heritage and placement like the original but more a film about growing and learning from the mistakes of the past. Despite Adonis and Viktor being obvious embodiments of future generations being forced to re-reflect on the doings of their fathers and father figures, it was also the characters from the past – the tragic fossils – Rocky and Ivan whom suffered the greatest due to the fact, unlike the younger ones, they had the ability to change the future due to their understanding of the past. Unlike most films that would utilise the youthful protagonists as vehicles for the audience to understand certain ideas, in Creed II the older supporting characters filled said role on a greater level with their own retrospective look that assisted in perceiving and altering all that came before them. Yet, it’s through the action of these characters, whether old influencing young or young rebelling against old, where true meaning was found. Understanding, loyalty, faith and appraisal all linked together as Creed II used its characters and their place in time and space to show its audience how the past compliments the future and, if not carefully observed, will determine how things play out for generations to come.

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(Barry W, 2018)

The best ways Creed II managed to translate its deeper meanings and rawer cinematic appeal, in fact, would have to be through the execution of its meaty middle. Creed II was bookended by some awesome, intentionally derivative Rocky boxing sequences and training montages for which both excelled in the white-knuckled intensity they were trying for. However, it was in the down time of Creed II, around the midpoint, where I found most solace in the film’s knack for visual storytelling. After a certain boxing sequence in the film’s first act, Creed II retracted from its fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled antics and returned to the same feeling that the original Creed was able to translate so well. For a period of time, Creed II became a slow burn with Ludwig Göransson’s score and Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography pushing towards a meditative state for the film to relax into. Moments of tranquillity juxtaposed against Adonis’ family drama alongside his wife, Bianca, his uncertainty on boxing and his “rocky” (yeah, I know I’m funny) relationship with Rocky, really sold the film on its heartfelt moments. Through its midpoint, Creed II managed to focus on the most important element of the franchise – what made the series so great in the first place – its emphasis on character. I lived for the moments where Adonis would be cradling his new born baby or sitting in his car, thinking about his troubles; the rich fundamentals of life will forever be more fulfilling than large-scaled action sequence when you have such well-written characters at your disposal. When the film allowed itself to, Creed II really relied heavily on its established character relationships to really sell the film and, by gosh, did it work.

Not to say the script by Stallone and Juel Taylor hadn’t been enough, but the acting by far really sold every moment of drama and levity in the film. Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson were already, whom I consider, two of our generations most talented and promising actors, period. Creed II offered the two a platform to really showcase their talent and potential for future endeavours as Jordan and Thompson’s chemistry equally excelled in every moment. Honestly, I have never been much of a fan of Sylvester Stallone, though with his portrayal of Rocky, I really cannot fault the actor. Never does Stallone not put 110% into this role and it shows every time; the passion, the love, the heart is all there whenever he steps into said role as it honestly brings a slight tear to the eye whenever he does choose to reprise his cherished Rocky Balboa. Though, man, who really came out of nowhere for me was Dolph Lundgren. Now, I don’t really watch much of Lundgren’s films because he makes such crappy action movies and not much else; so, therefore, I would say I have been deprived of a Lundgren performance for quite a while. In Creed II, coming off as what felt to me entirely fresh and new in performance, Lundgren really sold his returning character of Ivan Drago with menace and pain visible beneath his iris. Lundgren was honestly great in Creed II – I loved him, and he might have very well been one of my favourite parts of the film.

Also, Lundgren’s Drago as a character really worked for me on every level. Drago was written as a villain so sympathetic and layered that he could have honestly just been another supporting character. His arc over the course of the film was genius, all the way up to his final, heartbreaking move. Though none of this awesome character work would have been possible without Florian Munteanu’s Viktor, who also really shun but also brought out the best of Ivan. The relationship arc between the father and son characters rivalled that of Adonis and Bianca’s emotional relationship arc as, in total, I was very impressed with how the quote-on-quote “villains” – more antagonists – of Creed II were handled…

… although I would have liked to have seen more from how the Drago storyline concluded. In fact, my biggest problem with Creed II would have to be how most storylines either essentially begun or ended. I realise I said that the derivatives of Creed II’s plot in relation to the Rocky movies was needed to showcase certain themes, but it sometimes came at the cost of story and characters. There were periods of this film where I felt certain pivotal characters just disappeared or were pushed to the side, not to reappear for another half an hour down the track. Tessa Thompson’s Bianca happened to be one of said causalities of the unbalanced storylines and character work. Bianca may have featured as a prominent figure in the middle of the film, however towards the film’s conclusion she felt pushed so far to the background that by the time her character reappeared onscreen audiences could have either gone. “huh? Forgot she was in this movie” or “that extra looks a lot like Tessa Thompson”. I don’t think the film necessarily was bad or was of large fault for not balancing its characters as successfully as possible, but I do think being a film that was so damn good, the minor problems were easier to pick up on. There was no doubt that Adonis Creed was the film’s protagonist and Rocky was his “rock” (yep, I said it) but Bianca, the Dragos and other characters just felt a bit shaky in their inconsistent appearances and reappearances throughout the film, therefore bringing into question how strongly their character arcs carried out from start to finish.

The direction was noticeably not as well done as Coogler’s, but Caple Jr. really nailed the finer visuals of Creed II. Most outstandingly, a swimming pool sequence really stood out to me as a key visual footnote that really sold the film’s power and impact in comparison to its original. Though, in total, what really made Creed II work so immensely well was its characters and how the film, on occasions, went about fulfilling said character’s basic wants and needs in storytelling. Creed II may have not be the emotional gut punch that was the first Creed but it still contained the heart and soul of the mighty franchise that had managed to chug along from 1976’s Best Picture winner through some very “meh” sequels to a revival franchise that clearly knows what it’s doing.

So, kudos to Creed II. In days like these, we audiences, deserve a healthy, well-done franchise for which we can rely on. Let it be Creed.

Creed II is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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