directed by steven caple jr ; starring michael b jordan, tessa thompson, sylvester stallone
3 mustangs won out of 5 wagered
Hypothetical: striding across campus, reluctantly on your way to edifying activities, you encounter your scholastic enemy, the history major. It’s the morning after yet another night of long, poor, slimy decisions, and your own personal weather is dismal. Mr history pants, who’s seen that green facial cast before, hitches his textbooks onto his hip and snidely recites that adage about people not studying history and repeating it, all the while grinning the smug grin of one secure on the path to righteousness. Annoying el nerdo may be, but he’s got a point---smugness is unbecoming, though, buddy, so just you watch it. In fact, let’s bring michael b jordan in at this point to punch the selfsatisfaction back down his throat. This even though creed 2 shows that jordan is himself stuck in something like this condemned repetition. He makes it look good, though.
Creed 2 is rocky 4 with a dash of million dollar baby, an action chassis with an engine made entirely out of feelings. As a sequel it manages to keep its footing, but it’s no empire (I kinda lost the thread when boba fett escaped with stallone frozen in carbonite, to be honest). Creed uno made its name resurrecting rocky with stunning writing, action sequences, and---above all---relationships between characters. Dos does well to follow that formula, keeping rocky (stallone), donnie (mb jordan), and bianca (t thompson) centerstage among boxing matches, tired coldwarisms, and the inescapable training montages. Donnie and bianca are enthralling whenever they’re onscreen together; thompson and jordan could be hollywood’s most compelling couple if only they were a couple. It’s a shame when the movie decides to get serious in the desert so donnie can beat up escaped convicts, and bianca vanishes from the story (coulda done without the gratuitous neckweight shots, also). But it says a lot that the best scene isn’t anything to do with boxing, just donnie and bianca lying on the carpet, heads together, newborn on donnie’s chest. It’s an echo of a similar shot in creed one, as d + b’s first kiss comes back in new, complex reverberations.
Let’s talk about drago. Ah, viktor, ye manhulk of schwarzeneggerian silence. Of such glower that his eyes live in perpetual, russian shadow. Antagonist but not enemy. Unconventionally (and brilliantly, if you ask me), the movie opens with viktor (florian munteanu) training with former creed-devourer ivan drago (dolph lundgren) for multigenerational revenge on donnie and rocky. Another echo; sounding back to uno’s opening sequence of donnie’s underground matches in mexico. Now it’s viktor climbing out of the pit, scavenging fights in blasted soviet rubble, while donnie enjoys fame and fortune and free cheesesteaks. Viktor and ivan’s dynamic, for all its glowering and unspoken phrases, feels deep and sincere. Ivan projects both hunger and weariness from the craggy face of a god denied his immortality. Viktor’s determination/desperation to redeem his father and the drago name humanizes a character who might’ve been a mere killing machine.
Judging this movie presupposes the question why a sequel at all. We’re in the time of unrelenting series that build and build and shove aside potentially more original movies. Harry potter has become a fantastic beast. Despicable me got three iterations. The incredibles will follow, I predict. Deadpool ditto. Let’s just not even mention star wars. Familiarity begets comfort begets dollars. Why risk the money for some art flick when we could just see the next lego movie and be guaranteed, at the least, entertainment?
Creed original flavor was hyperaware of the series curse. Rocky had overstayed his welcome the moment mr t showed up, and reviving the italian stallion in 2015 was problematic, artistically speaking. But creed won me over with its honest portrayal of a hero way past his prime, lonely and aging, who had to be coaxed back to the bag. #2 has the same challenges of any sequel, but it’s drawing from an unusually good movie. Hard luck, kid. It’s an echo that occasionally rings true, but just as often comes back garbled. The camera work isn’t as tight, and the excellent overtheshoulder shots of donnie fighting---and the implied ballet between actors and camera operators, weaving in and out---are largely gone. There’s less humor, less fun. The spectacle and sense of scale don’t hit quite as hard. The final fight between donnie and viktor in particular feels tinny and hollow.
Buuuuut, we got rocky balboa. Stallone extends his understated performance from the first movie, never straying into histrionics or melodrama to convey just how frightened he is of drago (‘he broke things in me that ain’t never been fixed’), or that donnie will abandon him. The movie dwells on and extends the theme of aging, and much of rocky’s pathos comes from just how painfully past his prime he is. His battles are entirely emotional: keeping his relationship with donnie, dwelling on his lack of relationship with his son, reconciling his relationship with his current, damaged self. Old and battlescarred, he reinforces the character-first motto; it’s telling that donnie’s two biggest triumphs (no spoilers, rest assured) are seen through rocky’s eyes.
Rocky imprinted himself---fictionally and non---on the world via a certain brand of toughness and heart, but time has moved on. What’s left to strive for, to struggle against, to overcome? One of the final shots, and my favorite, has rocky slumped in a foldout chair ringside, alone, with ‘creed’ in huge letters across his back. The passing of the torch has never felt so inevitable. Or so tragic.