Friday, December 28, 2018

LEGACY: a review of "Creed II"

Based upon characters created by Sylvester Stallone
Story by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker
Screenplay Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone
Directed by Steven Caple Jr.
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

This review is dedicated to my Dad, Powhatan Collins, who passed away on December 9, 2018, exactly one week after I saw this film. 

I hated "Rocky IV" (1985). Actually, I did not simply hate the film, I downright loathed it.

Upon the time of the release of "Rocky IV," I was 16 years old. While I was certainly not astute enough at that time to even have begun to fully formulate any sense of a socio-political worldview, I instinctively knew when something just was not right and from my perspective, "Rocky IV" was as wrong as it got.

As a film, and as the fourth installment in the on-going story of our favorite boxer from Philadelphia, "Rocky IV" fully jumped the shark, leaving anything remotely grounded in reality far in the dust. Written, directed and starring Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa essentially became a superhero in a ridiculously misguided effort that eschewed everything regarding character development for shamelessly shallow music video editing and sequences that pitted the Italian Stallion against the Russian behemoth Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) as Balboa attempts to avenge the death of former rival/best friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), whom Drago killed in the boxing ring. The film culminates in a climactic battle between Balboa and the synthetically enhanced Drago, with of course, our hero pummeling Drago to the gradually and rapturously cheering of...the Russians?!

The dynamic presence of James Brown's "Living In America" notwithstanding, I vividly remember sitting in that crowded movie theater with stomping feet and applause all around me and just seething for I just knew that I had just sat through some brain dead, rah-rah-rah, jingoistic propaganda tailor made for the hungry masses of the mid '80s Cold War occurring between the United States and Russia. It was a feature length Reagan era commercial promoting America's supposed dominance disguised as popcorn entertainment and I wanted nothing  to do with this Right Wing fantasy film...especially one that more than conveniently had a dead Black man housed at its core.

Now, of course, since that time, the "Rocky" series has done more than its share to return to its roots and return the character to a sense of normalcy by striping him of his wealth and bringing him back to the Philadelphia streets, concluding, such as it was, with the touching, elegiac sixth installment "Rocky Balboa" (2006), again written and directed by Stallone. For me, that film, righted a lot of wrongs about the series while also giving it its much overdue finale.

So, imagine my surprise once we arrived with Ryan Coogler's "Creed" (2015), a film that we never, ever needed but one I was ecstatic to behold (and completely against all of my severe skepticism) as Coogler richly re-invented and extended the saga of Rocky, while attaching it to the beautifully moving and uncompromisingly primal story of Adonis Johnson Creed (the outstanding Michael B. Jordan), the son of the late Apollo Creed, produced through a long ago extramarital affair. Adonis' search for his life's meaning and significance via his familial legacy in name and boxing was a soul stirring achievement that made me believe in this series in ways that I had ceased to since "Rocky II" (1979), and truth be told, by that film's end, I was ready for more. 

With "Creed II," as directed by Steven Caple Jr. taking over for Coogler who was ensconced in his directing duties for this year's "Black Panther," we are delivered a more than worthy second installment that comes just this close to reaching the heights set by "Creed." It is a film that like its predecessor focuses smartly and sharply upon character instead of spectacle, while also delivering the pulse pounding fight sequences that excite as well as enliven all of the character's motivations throughout. And even further, it achieves the near miraculous by taking what was once a cartoon in "Rocky IV" and re-envisioning that experience as one worthy of gripping, mature, and achingly humane pathos.

Steven Caple Jr.'s "Creed II" opens three years after the events of "Creed," as Adonis Creed (again played by Michael B. Jordan) becomes the heavyweight champion fighter of the world. Now possessing wealth, fame and the love of his longtime girlfriend, the aspiring singer/musician Bianca Taylor (the great Tessa Thompson), Adonis proposes marriage and Bianca suggests moving to Los Angeles from Philadelphia, a decision Adonis is reluctant to make due to his familial bond with the aging Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). 

Meanwhile in Russia, the aging Ivan Drago (again portrayed by Dolph Lundgren), disgraced in his country from his loss to Rocky thirty three years earlier, seeks his chance for redemption via his own son, the boxing behemoth Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), by seeking a once-in-a-lifetime challenge against Adonis, a boxing event aided to fruition by the duplicitous boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby).

While Adonis itches to take on Viktor as a means to avenge his Father's death by Viktor's Father, Rocky Balboa refuses to train him, causing a rift be tween the two men who have now become surrogate Father and son towards each other. Adding additional stress to Adonis is the continuing decline of Bianca's hearing plus the birth of their daughter Amara, who may be genetically inclined to deafness.

And now, with new adversaries to face down, will Adonis Creed rise to the legacy of his name and his Father or will he crumble under the enormity of its weight?

Steven Caple Jr.'s "Creed II" more than delivers the good as you would expect from this series that has now surpassed 40 years in its beloved longevity, almost through a sheer force of will and unshakable perseverance...much like the characters who are the engines of this story. Caple Jr. more than picks up the hefty mantle left by Ryan Coogler as he beautifully helms an equally smart, sophisticated, and highly assured episode that honors all that has arrived before while also charting new territories that ensure the film attains newfound emotional depths.

First of all, and especially within a cinematic year that has more than showcased a variety of examples of Black Excellence--from Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman," Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You," George Tillman Jr.'s "The Hate U Give," Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time" and of course, the aforementioned "Black Panther" from Ryan Coogler--Caple Jr.'s "Creed II" is an exceedingly welcome addition as we are again given over to the supremely magnetic presence, skill, agility, athleticism and superlative acting chops of Mr. Michael B. Jordan, who commands the screen every single moment in which he appears.

To that end, I deeply appreciated that Tessa Thompson returned for this installment, giving me, and audiences, a rare glimpse into Black love, Black relationships and Black families within mainstream films (I especially loved the moment when Adonis and Rocky playfully spar over what to name Adonis' newborn daughter), as Thompson also possesses a magnetic presence making her Johnson's equal, much like the characters they portray. Their union, so complete in struggles tension, peaks and valleys, is more than refreshing to witness. As always, representation is everything and having that opportunity to witness the continuing love and life story of Adonis Creed and Bianca Taylor, lifted me as I was proud to see another visualization of the Black Experience on screen.

Additionally, this specific quality not only provides a nice symbiotic link to "Rocky II," as love story of Adonis and Bianca allows "Creed II" to be grounded within the same adult hopes and fears faced by Rocky and Adrian. It assures the film remains with its feet firmly planted upon the Earth as the nuances and challenges of their relationship remain palpable in their inherent drama, as well as keeping the overall humanity of the piece firmly intact.

In fact, I would argue that the greatest feat of "Creed II" is  how Caple Jr., the entire cast and crew have transformed the cartoon of "Rocky IV" into something with true gravity, pain and sorrow regarding the crippling sense of loss  that exists within Adonis for certain but has spread itself around to Rocky, Adonis' stepmother Mary Anne Reed (Phylicia Rashad) and to even Ivan Drago himself.

Instead of being utilized as a cheap plot point to promote a political agenda, the death and loss of Apollo Creed has, at long last with this new series, been humanized for all participants involved. In "Creed II," as Rocky painfully tries to dissuade Adonis from taking on Viktor Drago, he espouses the following concerning Ivan Drago: "He's broken things in me that ain't never been fixed."

That one line is chilling to say the least and Sylvester Stallone plays it with a beautiful, natural and honest quality that flies against every artificial second of "Rocky IV" by never once suggesting the prefabricated path for revenge or the re-writing of history. This time what we are given is a moment in the life of a legendary character marked with real and tangible unhealed pain and brutal regret.

For that matter, the character of Ivan Drago, as portrayed here in "Creed II" is a near miracle as the cartoon villainy is completely excised and what remains in a real man, broken by the defeat of his past and the ensuing humiliation that followed when his nation, friends and even his wife all walked away from him. And through the purity of Dolph Lundgren's brooding yet melancholic performance, I think we are also asked to try and discover the hint of deeply burrowed yet unending guilt stemmed from his murder of Apollo Creed.

And from the vantage point of these two now elderly yet irrevocably damaged men, we find how their choices have unleashed consequences that have reverberated through time itself to the children; Viktor Drago, Adonis Creed and even to Rocky's long estranged son, Robert, now living in Vancouver.

I feel that here is where Steven Caple's Jr.'s "Creed II" finds its greatest and most stirring success, because at the film's core, we have a film that is entirely about the tenuous, and again, primal relationships held between Fathers and sons. Yes, the central relationship between Adonis and Rocky  is designed to evoke a son/Father dynamic with each other but it is also designed to echo the relationships with the Father and son each character has lost.

Beyond that, we are dealing with the full nature of legacy on a multi-character scale, as Caple Jr. presents a deeply moving story that concerns itself and often centers itself around the plight of the sons and how they are  each attempting to fit into the massive shoes left by their Fathers. Can the son ever indeed live up to the legacy created by the Father? Can the son ever extend beyond the Father's successes and failings? Can the son ever carve out their own legacy that honors, yet is fully independent of the Father?

For that matter, Caple Jr. is wisely sympathetic enough to allow strong inner turmoil for both Rocky and even Ivan Drago as both men question the choices they have made that have now affected their relationships with their own children. Is Ivan forcing Viktor into a life of boxing solely to support his son's true desires or to assuage his own pain? Is Rocky making the same mistakes with Adonis that he has made with Robert, therefore risking losing another child who means the world to him?

"Creed II" could have easily existed as a rather cheap, money grab sequel exploiting the popularity of "Rocky IV." Yet, gratefully, graciously and often grandly, Steven Caple Jr. finds ways to make sure his film is more than about what occurs in the boxing ring. That "Creed II" achieves precisely what was achieved in the original, Oscar winning "Rocky" (1976), the very film that made us fall in love with the character in the first place.   

With everything being said, "Creed II" falls a  hair short of its predecessor solely due to the fact that aspects of the story arc make the proceedings more than a bit predictable as the training sequences and fights, while well staged and presented, do indeed follow the classic "Rocky" structure of failings and comebacks, thus reducing some of the overall tension and accomplishment.

But that is essentially a somewhat minor quibble as the depth and grace of what Steven Caple Jr. has presented is what has resonated with me so powerfully. The constant themes of perseverance, integrity, and forcing oneself to rise to the best of themselves even when feeling battered, bruised and completely down for the count still resonate powerfully and remain as relevant and as present in 2018 as they did in 1976. 

In fact, Steven Caple Jr.'s "Creed II" is so good that it almost makes me want to forgive "Rocky IV," because we woud not even have this new film without having had that older film...regardless of what I thought about it.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic review. Thorough and detailed without spoiling my sense of anticipation prior to seeing this flick. Thank you!