At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Creed II

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Creed II

MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Sports Drama/Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Milo Ventimiglia, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Robbie Johns/Runtime: 130 minutes

I think it is safe to say that if you made a list of the top 5 fictional boxers of all time in the realm of cinema there is one name that most people would put at number one (if not fill all 5 slots with at least one letter of his name) and that name would be Rocky. Of course, it’s not hard to see why dear reader. Indeed not only is the first Rocky seen by many as one of the finest sports movies ever made to say nothing of the fact that the character is seen as a proverbial prodigal son of sorts for the city of Philadelphia where the character hails from (a fact I can personally attest to having been to the city and found myself engaged in quite the spirited debate with some of the locals over a pint of the good stuff over which is the best film in the franchise), but even the character himself has come to be seen as a wonderful cinematic representation for grit, heart, passion, and the will to keep on fighting no matter what life throws your way. Naturally then, it should come as no surprise then to learn that, following the apparent curtain call for the character in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the series would continue with a slice of cinema which focused on Apollo Creed’s son with Rocky in more of a supporting role that fans were more than just a wee bit on the skeptical side as to how this would play out. Thankfully, we see that much like the icon himself, the slice of cinema that was 2015’s Creed managed to surprise everyone, go the distance, and not only win over the film reviewing community, but also the general movie going public and even earn the respect and admiration of Rocky fans the world over (a feat that not even 1990’s Rocky V could acquire, but the less said about that film the better honestly). As a result, we see that in the long-ago year of 2018 a sequel to Creed was put out into the world with the fancy title of Creed II and which promised to further stoke the flames of nostalgia by operating as a sort of next-generation type follow-up courtesy of having new protagonist Donnie Creed’s next opponent be the son to one of the more iconic opponents that Rocky himself ever faced in the arena: Ivan Drago. With that in mind, I must confess dear reader that this slice of cinema managed to surprise me. I say that because there may be a few issues here and there, but the work behind the camera is certainly more than capable and the work in front of the camera by the cast of players is really well-done as well. Thus, no Creed II might not be a total knock-out by any stretch, but this is still one cinematic bout that, like Rocky and Donnie, manages to go the distance and emerge a winner all the same.

The plot is as follows: Picking up a solid three years since the events of the first film, Creed II gets underway as we see that in the time since we last laid eyes on Adonis “Donnie” Creed life has been pretty dang good. Indeed, this is because, with the aid of his paternal mentor/trainer Rocky Balboa, Donnie has managed to win no less than 6 fights in a row which has come to a head with a phenomenal win over Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler in order to claim the WBC World Heavyweight Championship title. We also see that in the time between Donnie’s relationship with his singer-songwriter girlfriend Bianca has also gotten serious enough to ask her to marry him which she elatedly agrees to. Yet although Bianca would like for her and Donnie to start fresh in Los Angeles, we see that Donnie isn’t quite on board with leaving Philadelphia since doing so would also mean leaving Rocky who is pretty much the closest thing to a father our hero has ever known. Of course, it isn’t long before we see that potential trouble decides to make its way to Philadelphia for our hero. Trouble that takes the shape, height, form, and imposing physical strength of a young man by the name of Viktor Drago who has been taking the world of boxing by storm over in his native country of Ukraine. Incidentally dear reader if this fighter’s last name seems to ring any bells, then trust me when I say that is not coincidental. This is because Viktor’s father is one Ivan Drago. As in the man who, three decades prior, was himself a fighter who brutally killed Donnie’s dad in the ring before having his butt handed to him in turn by Rocky and nothing less than good ol’ fashioned American democracy/capitalism (gotta love the political subtext in Rocky IV man). At any rate, we see that the reason Ivan and Viktor have come to Philadelphia is to challenge Donnie for the title. Yet although Donnie agrees to the fight, we see that he is to go at it alone due to Rocky, remembering what happened to Apollo, not wanting to see history repeat itself. As a result, this leads to the fight at best not going so well and at worst leaving not only Donnie’s fighting spirit, but also his right to the title in a state of limbo. Thus, it is up to Bianca, Donnie’s mom Mary Anne, the son of Apollo’s old trainer, and even Rocky himself to reignite Donnie’s will to fight. Not only to prepare for the future where a rematch with Viktor looms in the horizon, but also to ensure that no matter what happens it won’t be a repeat of the tragedies of the past….

Now right off the bat I should point out that Creed II in many respects isn’t just a slice of cinema that deals with the sport of boxing. Oh, sure there are some moments of two men in colorful shorts making their way into a ring, putting on some gloves, and proceeding to pummel the heck out of one another. At the same time though, this slice of cinema is also one that, from a story point of view, brilliantly operates as a look at the time-honored tropes of the ties that can connect a father and son to say nothing of the true costs that getting revenge and rebuilding one’s image can truly have more than anything else. As a result, this slice of cinema really does a wonderful job at ensuring that all of its cast of characters, right down to our pair of antagonists in Viktor and Ivan respectively, are incredibly three-dimensional rather than operating as mere archetypes that we have seen before. Thus, this slice of cinema is able to ensure that everyone, even our pair of de-facto villains, are able to viewed less as characters in a movie and more like actual human beings that in a weird way we can actually sympathize with to an extent. With that being said though, when this slice of cinema does engage in the scenes of boxing action this franchise is known for, it should be noted that the cinematography for those scenes proves to be downright electrifying in every sense of the word. Indeed, not only do you consistently feel like you are in the middle of the ring with both fighters as they are exchanging furious blows with each other, but you also get some truly glorious and beautifully filmed wide shots of both the arena as well as the teams in their respective corners anxiously watching. Besides the fantastic work done in the ring and arenas though, it is also worth pointing out that the rest of the work done by the cinematography department is just as phenomenal at bringing the world of the film vividly to life. A claim that is especially true in regards to this installment’s training montage which looks and feels like it was filmed in a desert-based exercise area that’s used by Mad Max when he’s not roaring through the Wasteland. Finally, it should also be said here that this slice of cinema is the blessed recipient for a truly rousing musical accompaniment from Ludwig Göransson that, much like the score in Creed, is a wonderful mix of both being its own thing yet knowing the right moments at which to bring in certain music that fans of this franchise should know by heart at this point. Suffice it to say therefore that the work behind the camera, despite the lack of powerhouse film helmer Ryan Coogler due to prior commitments in Wakanda, still manages to rise to the challenge of meeting what he and the team on the first Creed back in 2015 brought to the table and does so quite admirably.

Of course, the other big component that works in this slice of cinema’s favor is the fact that the cast of players in front of the camera all come out swinging and give truly riveting performances in the process. This starts with the returning Michael B. Jordan as the titular character and again he is phenomenal. Indeed not only does he bring the charisma, ferocity and physicality that he brought in the first film, but he also brings the pathos and gravitas as well in a way that feels reflective of where the character has been so far whilst also giving him new avenues to explore with the character in terms of his father’s legacy and also learning to find a purpose to his life beyond the ring as well. Suffice it to say that is a wonderful performance from an actor who really has become, much like his character, a genuine powerhouse talent to keep an eye on. We also get terrific work here from the returning Tessa Thompson in the role of Donnie’s girlfriend/fiancée Bianca. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: in more than a few ways this is very much the Bianca from the first Creed film including the chemistry between her and Jordan which is still wonderfully and organically realized. At the same time though, there are some new aspects to the character that come to play which I shan’t spoil here. Yet even with these new developments to her character, there is no denying that Thompson manages to step up to the plate and deliver a performance that both is reflective of these changes whilst also staying true to what made the character such a stand out in the first place. Of course, it should come as no surprise to learn that once again Sylvester Stallone, as this franchise’s returning icon/heart and soul Rocky Balboa, brings the A-game that he brought so beautifully to the first Creed here as well even if he doesn’t get as much to do in this particular go-around. Even with that in mind though, there is no denying that Stallone still manages to rise to the occasion and bring this legend vividly to life whenever the film asks him to especially in regards to moments dealing with the surrogate yet loving all the same familial bond between him and Donnie. Yet out of all the moments that the film provides him, I think the one that speaks to me the most dear reader is a scene between him and Donny where he gives him some rather important advice while the two of them are in the hallways of a hospital together. Indeed, not only is it a quite emotional moment, but the way that Stallone delivers it is just so magnificently understated that you won’t be surprised if you find yourself actually blinking back a tear or two. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me though in terms of performances from the cast would have to be the returning Dolph Lundgren in the role of Ivan Drago. To be sure, he is still in many ways the one-dimensional antagonist fans of the franchise will fondly remember from Rocky IV (I must break you!). Yet we see this slice of cinema isn’t content with just rehashing what worked before and instead actually gives Ivan Drago some dimension and nuance this go-around that Lundgren sells phenomenally well. As a result, yes he is still a bad guy in this make no mistake, but in a unusual way we as movie goers also feel a degree of empathy for the character due to both seeing and hearing what the loss to Rocky in that film cost him in the years since their bout (especially in regard to a scene he and Stallone share that is absolutely electric) as well as watching him trying to rebuild his image even if the cost to doing so, unbeknownst to him, is having a genuine relationship with his son that goes beyond the ring. Suffice it to say that it’s a terrific performance and one that I hope inspires Lundgren to actually pursue some more dramatic efforts in the future. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in fantastic efforts from such talents as new kid on the block Florian Munteanu who is perfect casting as Ivan’s son Viktor, Wood Harris as the returning Tony “Little Duke” Evers, and the also-returning Phylicia Rashad as Donnie’s loving stepmom Mary Anne it is clear that from an acting standpoint this slice of cinema is definitely a knock-out.

All in all I think it can be said without a doubt in my mind that in the long ago year of 2015, the first Creed film managed to do something quite special. Namely it managed to put a fresh spin on one of the most iconic franchises of all time by taking its legendary main character, putting him on the sidelines, and in his place giving us the son of his most iconic foe turned friend to put on the gloves and go the distance for the foreseeable future. Suffice it to say that it was a gamble to be sure, but one that managed to pay off beautifully for all parties concerned. More than that, it was just a genuinely great movie period. With that in mind, you should know that Creed II does manage to pick up where the first one left off and work just as well even with a few issues present that are less a statement to the overall quality of the film itself and more so just a case of this film dealing with a mild case of the dreaded sequelitis. Yet even with that little bit of a predictable hinderance in play, that still should not take away from the fact that I really did dig the heck out of this movie. Not just because I love how it manages to take Rocky IV, a slice of cinema I have always enjoyed, and examines the fallout from the events of that film under the lens of the next generation so to speak, but because the work behind the camera is really freaking good to the point that the fight scenes left me on the edge of my seat and applauding all at once whilst the work in front of the camera by the wonderful cast of players left me floored emotionally more than once and even also holding back tears at certain points. Suffice it to say then that Creed II might not be a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a fantastic 9-round cinematic bout that fans of this iconic franchise are sure to enjoy time and time again. On a scale of 1-5 I give Creed II a solid 4 out of 5.