Saturday, March 30, 2019

"Creed 2": review

I wasn't sure what to think when the marketing for 2018's "Creed II" began. I saw that the movie was going to be about the return of Rocky's old nemesis, Ivan Drago, and this looked interesting because Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Drago (Dolph Lundgren) are old men now, so we probably wouldn't be seeing a geezer fight à la "Grudge Match." The preview trailers told us that Drago has a bruiser of a son named Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who is gunning for Rocky's protégé Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), so "Creed II" was shaping up to be a recapitulation of, or at least a spiritual successor to, "Rocky IV."

Well, it was and it wasn't. The new film follows the karmic path of the repercussions of "Rocky IV," with Viktor having been raised to be aggressive and hateful thanks to the bitterness he inherited from his debased father Ivan. Adonis is also mindful that Ivan is the man who killed his father in the ring, and of course, Rocky still feels echoes from the death of his best friend, and from his own boxing match with Ivan. As Rocky tells Adonis at one point in reference to the massive Russian, "He broke things in me that ain't never been fixed."

But "Creed II" is more than a mere recap of the story arc of "Rocky IV." It's a movie that is very much about family. Adonis is still wrestling with the burden of his legacy as the son of a world-champion fighter. He's also at a shaky point in his relationship with Rocky, whom he views as a father figure and mentor, but also as someone who may be holding him back from something bigger (in this case, that "something bigger" is a fight against young Viktor Drago). Adonis also feels the pull of family: his lady love Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) is pregnant and wants to move from Philly to Los Angeles for reasons of both career and family.

When the movie opens, Adonis has recovered from his loss in the previous film to become the new WBC World Heavyweight champion. He and Bianca toy with the idea of moving west to L.A., but it's only when Rocky decides not to help Adonis train for a fight against Viktor that Adonis commits to moving west, leaving Rocky and Philadelphia behind. Now bereft of Rocky's help, Adonis preps for a fight against Viktor and, predictably, gets his ass handed to him, suffering multiple fractures and organ damage. The only thing that saves Adonis from losing his champion status is an illegal punch by Viktor, delivered while Adonis is still down. Adonis is recovering in the hospital, a literally broken man, when his adoptive mother Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) asks Rocky to come west and see Adonis.

"Creed II" is a very good movie, but its story arc is very predictable. By the time we get to the point in the narrative described above, you can guess that the movie will switch to "redemption/comeback" mode, which is indeed what happens. It's not all predictable, though: one of the best touches in "Creed II"—and it's quietly done—is how both Rocky and Rocky's rival from the first movie, trainer Tony "Little Duke" Evers, put aside their differences and work together to get Adonis back into shape. There is, as you can imagine, the standard training montage, but the stress is on getting Adonis to approach this fight more the way Rocky approached his own fights. Let's talk about that for a sec.

Rocky's method, in pretty much every sequel to the 1976 original, is essentially the rope-a-dope method popularized by the savvy Muhammad Ali: take a massive pounding for the first two-thirds of the fight, convince your opponent of your weakness, then unleash the beast and come out swinging with titanic body blows, followed eventually by head blows, in the final third of the fight. Adonis, despite being classed as a heavyweight (actor Michael B. Jordan is surely muscular enough to have some mass on him), has a smaller stature than Rocky, so asking Adonis to fight like Rocky places a heavy demand on the young man. The movie is smart enough to show that Adonis can't quite take the punishment that Rocky, in his heyday, could: in the rematch between Adonis and Viktor, Viktor breaks several of Adonis' ribs. But Adonis, channeling Muhammad Ali, is relying on the notion that Viktor is channeling Mike Tyson—a boxer who wasn't known for his technique but was known, instead, for his speed, his brutal strength, and his quick victories before getting close to the tenth round. To beat Viktor Drago, you have to outlast the initial storm, and once the storm blows itself out, you summon your own hurricane and call up the reserves of your own brute strength.

I won't give away the ending, here, although you can doubtless guess it. I will say that, overall, "Creed II" was a fine, watchable film that stepped away from a relentless focus on boxing to give us dimensional characters who all spent much of the movie exploring the bonds of family. While the movie was mostly predictable, it had heart, so I give it credit for doing a better job than many sequels do when it comes to depth of feeling. I can't, however, imagine where the Creed series might go from here, so along with other movie critics, I'd have to beg the studios not to make a third Creed movie. Two movies are enough. No need to jump the shark.

One last remark: I did think about how I'd have approached this story had I been a screenwriter and/or the director. I think I would have portrayed Ivan Drago differently: the Drago we meet in "Creed II" is bitter and hardened, but not truly humbled. He's spent years looking for some sort of comeback, some way to regain his original fame and honor. I think I'd have written a different story—one in which Drago has been humbled by his loss, perhaps even disillusioned about life in post-Soviet Russia. He still loves boxing and still possesses his original rigid self-discipline, but he doesn't train his son to be a vengeful extension of himself: he trains him to love boxing as much as he, Ivan, always has. In my version of the story, there'd be the possibility of a tentative friendship, or at least of a stoic reconciliation, between Rocky and Ivan Drago. There might even be a moment in which Drago acknowledges to Adonis that Apollo Creed was a great fighter, and that Drago is now sorry for having killed Apollo. Adonis would then have the choice of either forgiving Ivan or hating him, and Adonis' own bitterness might lead to enmity between Adonis and Viktor, maybe during a moment in which Adonis tries to take a swing at Ivan, with both Rocky and Viktor trying to stop him. I guess I'm thinking along these lines because "Creed II" does provide a moment in which Ivan Drago finds Rocky in Rocky's restaurant, and the two sit down for a tense talk after years of being apart. It's actually a well-done scene by director Steven Caple, Jr., but it left me wanting more. There was some lost potential, there.

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