Creed II (2018)

2019 #53
Steven Caple Jr. | 130 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Creed II

Creed II is, as its title suggests, a sequel. But it’s even more than that — it’s like a sequel squared; perhaps even a sequel cubed. How so? Well, it is, of course, a direct continuation of Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a boxing drama which itself served as a follow-up of the Rocky films. But, as if being a sequel to a follow-up wasn’t enough, Creed II is also directly connected to the plot of Rocky IV. That makes for a funny old combination of influences: whereas Creed was arguably the most grounded and realistic Rocky movie since the first (and, with it, one of the series’ very best instalments), Rocky IV is undoubtedly the most cartoonish and ridiculous entry in the canon (although it was also the most financially successful and has a certain cheesy charm). Can Creed II reconcile the tonal disparity between its two primary forebears?

For those not up on their Rocky continuity, Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) killed Rocky’s mate Apollo Creed during a match in the ’80s (as seen in Rocky IV). Now, Drago’s son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is a boxer too, and with Creed’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) newly crowned as the world heavyweight champion, Drago Sr arranges for Drago Jr to challenge Creed Jr — who, against the advice of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), accepts. But with the distraction of a pregnant fiancée (Tessa Thompson) and without Rocky to train him, is Adonis actually ready to take on a Drago?

The film’s title is, obviously, meant to be read “Creed 2” because it’s a follow-up to “Creed 1”, but if you chose to read it as “Creed the 2nd” it wouldn’t be inappropriate to the movie’s themes. This is a movie all about parents and children, what they owe to each other, and how they live up to that — or fail to. It’s a meaty subject to chew on, and credited screenwriters Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone (there’s also a story credit for Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker) examine it from almost every conceivable angle. As Ivan pushes Viktor to vicariously reclaim their reputation, Adonis struggles with the legacy of a father he never knew, as well as the dilemma of becoming a father himself, to a daughter who may be born disabled (due to possibly inheriting her mother’s hearing condition). And while there’s a lot of father/son stuff — as you’d probably expect in a film about such a stereotypically-manly sport — the film doesn’t neglect the role of mothers either, with both Viktor’s and Adonis’s having key parts to play in how things unfold.

Like father like son?

One aspect of that is that the film does a lot to humanise the Dragos. In Rocky IV, they were just nasty foreigners — that film is, fundamentally, anti-Russian pro-US Cold War propaganda. Here, they’re presented as people who have problems and issues of their own. I remember Stallone talking before about how it’s always more interesting if the opponent isn’t just a Villain, but is a real character with their own arc (this was in the audio commentary for Rocky Balboa, for which Stallone injected some autobiographical material into the opponent’s storyline). That’s obviously something he failed to achieve in IV, but it’s reestablished here and, well, he’s right. It’s not like it confuses the drama of the fight — there’s no question that Creed is our hero and the one we want to see triumphant — but by giving depth to the Drago’s, showing why the fight really matters to them too, it rounds out the story; and, in this case, provides additional perspectives on the parent/child themes.

It’s the way these films have something thematic to say that helps elevate them above mere punch-’em-ups. But it works as a sport/action movie too, finding some new twists within the familiar plot beats. I mean, when the Creed-Drago match comes before the film’s even reached the hour mark, you already have a fair idea how it’s gonna go. Without giving away specifics, what they’ve come up with leaves the contest as unfinished business, which is better motivation for the inevitable rematch than a simple “the hero lost the first time so he has to have a re-do so he can win”. This thinking extends to the final bout, too: it’s the first time in the series since Rocky III that the climactic fight doesn’t go all the way to the final round. It’s a nice change to dodge that predictability. Of course, these are really just variations on a theme — they’re still boxing matches; the options on the table are still “hero wins” or “hero loses” — but, as with many genre pieces, the devil is in the detail, and Creed II has good details.

It's all about family

Although this is primarily the second Creed film, there’s no doubt that it’s a little bit Rocky VIII, too. Stallone keeps saying he’s done with Rocky, then comes back for one more, but this really feels like it could serve as an ending. Well, so did the previous two films, but the idea of a grudge match between the sons of Apollo and Drago is an obvious one that I’m not surprised Hollywood came up with. It factors in and closes off so much of the series’ legacy that it’s difficult to see what would be of similar import to justify a second sequel. They could always do one “just because”, of course — there’s always a way; always more to a character’s life — but whereas the very existence of Creed suggested the potential for a sequel featuring Drago, now there’s no story left begging to be told. Nonetheless, Creed III has been announced. Whether Stallone is tempted back or sticks to his guns and lets the series move on without him, only time will tell.

In the meantime, Creed II is a worthy addition to this storied franchise. If it can’t go the distance against some of the earlier entries, that’s through no fault of its own — the best Rocky/Creed films are all-timers; or, as they say in sporting circles, GOATs.

4 out of 5

Creed II is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

The Knockout Monthly Update for November 2018

When Rocky snuck its way onto my “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” list back in January, I didn’t have particularly high hopes — I’ve never liked boxing movies, and I was only going to watch it because I ‘should’. Well, in the eight months since I watched it I’ve gone on to watch all six sequels, ending this month when I gave Creed full marks precisely because of how much it was a Rocky movie. And that’s why this month is a knockout.

Also, because I watched a tonne of films.


#223 Their Finest (2016)
#224 Going for Golden Eye (2017)
#225 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom 3D (2018)
#226 The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
#227 Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
#228 Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
#229 Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970), aka Buon funerale amigos!… paga Sartana
#230 Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
#231 Attack the Block (2011)
#232 Outlaw King (2018)
#233 Incredibles 2 3D (2018)
#233a Bao 3D (2018)
#234 They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
#235 Paper Moon (1973)
#236 Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)
#237 The Greatest Showman (2017)
#238 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
#239 The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), aka Kaguyahime no monogatari
#240 Redline (2009)
#241 Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967), aka Zatôichi tekka-tabi
#242 Creed (2015)
#243 Danger: Diabolik (1968), aka Diabolik
#244 Boy (2010)
#245 Dad’s Army (2016)
#246 Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (2018)
#247 Ant-Man and the Wasp 3D (2018)
Bohemian Rhapsody

Paper Moon

Creed

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

.


  • With 25 new films watched, November is the fourth best month of 2018. That’s not particularly impressive — it’s only just inside the year’s top third — but on an all-time scale…
  • That number makes November 2018 my joint fifth best month of all time (tied with August 2007), putting it in the top 5% of all months. Sounds a lot more impressive put like that, doesn’t it?
  • It’s the best November ever by some margin (the previous was 2016’s 14), in the process dragging the month’s average from 8.8 to 10.3. That leaves just July with an average below 10.0 (but it’s on 9.9, so hopefully I’ll get it over the line next year).
  • Also, as this is the first November with over 20 films, that leaves just December as the only month never to have reached the 20s. Will next month be the first? Only time will tell.
  • This month’s Blindspot film: aliens invade a London council estate in Attack the Block. The aliens may be violent, feral monsters, but they didn’t count on chavs…



The 42nd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
There were many films I really liked this month, including a couple that surprised me, and ending with two colourful superhero movies that I enjoyed as much or more than the genre’s more serious-minded efforts earlier in the year. But, as the introduction to this post probably made clear, the victor has to be Creed.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Where Creed worked because it had respect for its legacy, this month’s loser is a film that puts on the surface sheen of caring about its forebear, but doesn’t demonstrate that reverence — because it’s pretty rubbish. The film in question is 2016’s Dad’s Army remake.

Most Listened-to Song from a Movie of the Month
I thought this was going to be Last Breath by Future from the Creed soundtrack, which makes nice use of the famous Rocky theme to give that inspirational anthem a modern spin. But iTunes informs me the actual winner is the number I highlighted in my Greatest Showman review, the almost-titular The Greatest Show. Well, I did bung it on loop while I was writing that review…

Most Surprising Male Nudity of the Month
Sure, everyone was talking about Chris Pine’s penis in Outlaw King, but did you know Teen Titans Go! To the Movies features baby Superman’s naked, wiggling arse? Okay, he’s just a cartoon, but still.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
November 2018 was my second largest month ever for views and visitors, much of that powered by the continued popularity of my Bodyguard review (which has now entered my top ten of all time). As for new posts, regular readers may know that the winner of this award is often a review of a just-released film posted while that film is still brand spanking new. So when I posted my review of Bohemian Rhapsody a whole 18 days after its UK debut and 9 days after its US release, I didn’t expect much hit-wise. But, lo and behold, a mega-popular film is a mega-popular film, and Bo Rhap bested the likes of Outlaw King (a review I posted the day after it popped up on Netflix) and They Shall Not Grow Old (a review I posted the morning after it was on TV) to be November’s most-viewed new post.



This month, a few recent blockbusters I watched for the first time in 3D…

#42 Jurassic World 3D (2015)
#43 Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
#44 Thor: Ragnarok 3D (2017)
#45 Justice League 3D (2017)

People seem to have become increasingly sour towards Jurassic World in the years since it came out, but I still think it’s pretty great, a blockbuster ride with sufficient spectacle. In 3D, the extra dimension is superb, really adding to the film’s scale.

The same can be said of Thor: Ragnarok, which also benefited from a shifting IMAX aspect ratio. I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing — having been reminded of what a ‘normal’ Marvel movie is like tonally by Black Panther and Infinity War, Taika Waititi’s influence was much more pronounced.

Conversely, I was a bit more attuned to Justice League’s flaws this time around. Not that I was unaware of them before, and I still mostly enjoyed it, but it’s so clearly a compromised movie. Its 3D is fine, but rarely as spectacular as a film of this scope should be.


2018’s record-obliterating total.

Plus, could the combined final tallies of the main list and Rewatchathon result in— no, shh, it’s a secret…

Creed (2015)

2018 #242
Ryan Coogler | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Creed

Somehow, it took me a while to realise Creed was a Rocky movie. I remember hearing about the film; hearing its story of an underdog boxer taking on the world champion being compared positively to Rocky; and then beginning to hear kind-of-like-rumours that maybe, in fact, it actually featured the character of Rocky, and was, therefore, technically, a Rocky movie. Goodness knows what gave me that impression, because not only is Creed a Rocky movie through and through, with a major role for Sylvester Stallone’s character, but he’s on the bloody poster — and, in international markets, there’s a bloody big tagline emphasising how it’s a Rocky movie. Eesh. And all of that matters because, while there are a lot of things to like about Creed, I think my favourite was that it’s a proper Rocky movie.

The film introduces us to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed was killed in the ring (see Rocky IV for more on that). Adonis grew up in juvie, getting into fights, until Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him and raised him as her own. So Adonis was raised in the luxury life Creed’s legacy left them, and is now successful in a cushty office job, but inside burns the fire of a fighter. Quitting his job to make a proper go of it, no one in LA will train him, thinking he’s a rich kid just wanting to trade on his daddy’s legacy. Determined to make a name for himself, Adonis heads to Philadelphia with the intention of being trained by his father’s best friend, legendary boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone).

Creed and Balboa

Creed partly sets out to be its own thing, focusing on Adonis rather than Rocky (when you boil it down, the film actually has a similar plot to the much-despised Rocky V), but it doesn’t forget to be a proper instalment in the Rocky saga too, picking up on things from previous films (the restaurant; Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave) and moving them forward (where Paulie is; where Rocky’s son is). It’s unobtrusive for newcomers (it plays as character beats rather than overt references), but it’s satisfying for fans to feel that connection, that respect for the material. Creed sets out to tell a grounded and somewhat gritty story, like the original Rocky, but, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, the film pulls its “existence from what’s probably the dumbest and most cartoony of the Rocky movies. There are overt references to all 6 Rockys in the first Creed. No cherry picking. It’s all canon.”

That influence extends to the whole shape of the film, which follows the Rocky formula: the underdog getting a shot at the big league; a hero who’s fighting to prove himself more than to win; the training montages; the simultaneous love life and/or personal storylines… It’s clearly a new story about a new generation, emphasised by the details of how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler constructs and crafts the film, but it also sits very comfortably as the seventh Rocky movie.

As with any film that fits a genre template, it’s in the nuances that we find differences. For starters, Adonis’ route to the ring is a bit different to the norm. “Rags to riches” is a storyline we’ve seen a hundred times, but here’s a guy who has a lavish lifestyle, who could just trade off his father’s name if he wanted, but who has to find a way to prove himself in spite of that. It’s not just a personal demon: we’re shown that this is a world where only that “rags to riches” path is seen as authentic. It comes up several times throughout the film, but not least before the final fight, when Creed’s opponent taunts him with the fact he comes from such a background, that he’s more like Rocky than Adonis is. Of course, the net result to storytelling is the same: Adonis has to prove his worth to his doubters, and to himself.

Adonis and Bianca

In a featurette on the Blu-ray, Coogler says that “at the core of these movies, they’re really relationship dramas with an action sequence at the end.” I couldn’t’ve put it better myself, and Creed continues that tradition by seeing Adonis hook up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with problems of her own. According to Thompson, “Ryan really wanted to show a girlfriend character in the context of a sports movie that was complicated, that had her own life and own dreams.” I think that’s noticeably the case: her role in the film is obviously primarily defined in relation to Adonis, because this is his story, but she’s a rounded character with more agency than just “the love interest”. Depending how you view things, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Rocky films have often tried to give this depth to “the love interest”, i.e. Adrian. When we first meet her in Rocky she’s shy and quiet, which can come across as ‘secondary’, lacking depth or independence, but really it’s just a personality type. Adrian certainly changes and grows as the films go on, becoming more confident and forthright. Even compared to that, Bianca is more independent, more ‘modern woman’, driving the back-and-forth of the relationship as much as Adonis.

Rocky himself also gets a significant personal subplot, which allows Stallone to give a powerful performance — and, as it turned out, an award-winning one, which is impressive (and probably unprecedented) for the seventh outing of a character. The film draws on Rocky’s past to show us a guy who’s kind of content with letting life go — the love of his life is dead, his best friend is dead, his son has moved away, so why keep going? — but is given reason to fight again by a new family. I did think it was lacking a bit of Rocky’s charming naïveté, the occasional misspeaks or what have you (except for one bit about ‘the cloud’), but it’s been replaced with a genuine lived wisdom that does still feel like Rocky.

Training hard

Coogler, in just his second feature, demonstrated he really knows what he’s doing. Perhaps the most striking part of the direction is that he chooses to use a lot of oners, with none more effective than covering the entirety of Adonis’ first pro fight in a single take. We stay in the ring with the boxers throughout, up close alongside them, following the fight almost from their perspective, with the noise of the crowd and the shouts of the trainers moving around the room if you’re watching with surround sound. It depicts an entire two-round match this way, and it’s a genuine single take (they shot it 13 times, with the 11th being the one used). It’s a very different and effective way of presenting a fight, but it’s more than just cinematic theatrics: to quote Scott Collette from Twitter, it’s “one of the smartest sequences in modern filmmaking. Coogler puts us into the ring and, in withholding an edit, he conditions us to trust in and rely entirely upon Creed’s skills and training to get us out, and he rewards that trust. In doing so, Coogler buys himself the freedom to edit the shit out of the final match. No matter where he cuts […] we never leave the ring. We’re always with Adonis because he’s the only one who’s shown us that he can get us through it.” That’s bolstered by another oner just before the climactic bout, in which Coogler makes us a member of Adonis’ squad: it begins in the quiet locker room, with Rocky’s prematch pep talk and a little warm-up, before the camera follows along as they walk down the tunnel, putting us in the middle of the team, all the way into the arena, the sound of thumping music and a baying crowd gradually growing, and it doesn’t end until Adonis is actually in the ring, ready to fight. Again, it’s all about aligning us with Adonis and his crew, emphasising how much we’re connected to him and his fate.

The way Coogler and composer Ludwig Göransson use the famous Rocky theme is neat too: they hold it back, hold it back, hold it back, so that when it finally hits, just that burst of score makes for a triumphant moment. But then it’s not allowed to take over: Adonis may have been helped by the Rocky legacy, but this is his story now. Neither Adonis the fighter nor Creed the film exist purely by leeching off nostalgia.

Gonna fly now

And yet, as I said at the start, my favourite thing about the film is that it is a Rocky movie. But, importantly, it’s the way it doesn’t just indulge in references, but actually seeks to develop on the Rocky story — on everything that went on in the previous films — that makes Creed one of the very best in the series. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz again, “Creed is the ultimate Rocky movie, because all the other Rocky movies are somehow contained within it.” I feel wrong enjoying Creed the most out of the Rocky movies — like I’m just going for the most recent one, as if new = best — but the major reason I loved it so much is the way it has reverence for and builds on the past. As a standalone movie, it’s more-or-less equal to the best of the original Rocky films; but as specifically the seventh film in the Rocky series, it stands atop that 40-year history to add extra weight to everything. By itself, Creed is a very good 4-star movie, but its respect for the legacy tipped me over the top.

5 out of 5

Creed placed 19th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Creed II is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.