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Posts Tagged ‘Rocky’

Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it.

your correspondent, writing about Creed and displaying the usual level of uncanny precognitive ability

Christmas works party time rolled around again, and we reconvened in a pub a short walk outside the city centre, each having filled the time between ceasing pretending to work and the start of the festivities in our own particular way.

‘Did you go to the cinema?’ one colleague (whose name I shall be withholding) asked me. ‘What did you see?’

‘Creed II,’ I said.

‘I’ve not heard of that. What’s it about?’

The imp of the perverse was whispering in my ear, I’m afraid, and being aware that she was perhaps of a High Church of England-ish disposition… ‘It’s about the Council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed,’ I said. Keeping my face straight was almost too easy, now I think back on it.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah, it’s all about the splits in the early Christian church,’ I went on. ‘At the end of the first Creed they thought they’d figured most of it out, but in this one the Arian heresy rears its ugly head and it causes them all an awful lot of trouble.’

‘Wow! I can’t believe they did a film about that,’ she said, clearly wondering how she could have missed hearing about this.

I did consider going on to describe how the Emperor Constantine was played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ossius of Corduba by George Clooney, but my better nature made an unexpected reappearance and I had to confess it was all a pack of lies: Creed II is actually a boxing movie, the sequel to Creed and the eighth movie in the Rocky series, directed by Steven Caple Jr and (perhaps inevitably) co-written, co-starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. (My colleague and I are still on good terms, thankfully.)

The movie opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) fulfilling his potential and finally becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Yet nagging doubts remain – can he really live up to the example set by his late father, legendary champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who doesn’t appear in person, but who one hopes is getting decent remuneration for the use of his image throughout the movie)? Impending marriage and parenthood only add to the pressures on the young athlete.

And then Donnie’s trainer Rocky (Stallone) is startled by the reappearance of a figure from his past: Russian former boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades before, and who was then humiliated by Rocky in a rematch on Russian soil. Drago was left in disgrace and has spent the intervening years raising his son Viktor (the splendidly-named Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) as a living instrument of vengeance. The Dragos challenge Donnie to what’s basically a second-generation rematch, and one which Donnie feels obliged to accept, despite Rocky’s deep misgivings (not least because his own fight with Ivan Drago left him with permanent brain damage, not that anyone mentions this much nowadays).

What follows basically confirms that the Rocky series is the great sentimental soap opera of mainstream American cinema, as the various characters struggle with their personal demons, make tough choices, cope with success and failure, and so on, all expressed through a combination of character-based scenes, training montages, people talking to graves, and protracted fight sequences. This film tells a classical narrative of hubris, nemesis, and redemption, and the fact it is so familiar may be why it feels so satisfying to watch. The trick to these films, I have realised, lies not in the fight sequences themselves, for these are almost always completely predictable – given their context in the film, you always know who is going to eventually win in any particular situation. The film’s success lies in the fact that you don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen – what’s going to happen is what you want to happen, because the film has made you root for the hero and want to see the bad guy take the beating they have been earning throughout the film up to this point. Creed II is very successful in this respect, and credit must go to the screenplay (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) and the performances, particularly those of Jordan and Stallone (even if the latter’s transformation into someone resembling Popeye seems to be accelerating). On the other hand, it has to be said that this is very much a guy’s film, its themes of parental expectation and legacy largely expressed through the relationship between fathers and sons, and Tessa Thompson ends up with a slightly underwritten part as a result, mainly just there as girlfriend and mother.

Of course, the film may also be familiar due to the fact that, in that in many respects, it basically repeats the plot of Rocky IV, albeit with one rather big modification. You could argue that in some ways the first Creed basically revisited the plot of the original Rocky, which was a solid drama and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976 (even if it has been known to pop up on lists of ‘Worst Film ever to win Best Picture’). Perhaps the most remarkable (possibly even miraculous) thing about Creed II is that it revisits the characters and events of Rocky IV, surely the silliest of these films, and still manages to produce a credible and affecting drama. I’m almost tempted to say that this is the kind of film The Expendables should have been: there’s a genuine sense of a significant moment taking place when Stallone and Lundgren finally meet one another, and it must be said that the big Swede gives a highly effective performance as the film’s antagonist (Munteanu is largely just there as a physical presence, though his acting performance is perfectly acceptable). It’s entirely possible that this is the best acting work Dolph Lundgren has ever done (not that this is necessarily saying very much, of course). Perhaps even more startlingly, the film also sees the return of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s ex-wife Ludmilla, albeit in a much more limited cameo. I expect that this film’s willingness to embrace the past of the series so whole-heartedly (I would have said that if you went into a major Hollywood studio and proposed doing a movie with Lundgren and Nielsen in key roles you’d just get laughed at) will largely be lost on the young audience it is aiming for, but for those of us who’ve been following along for many years, it’s a very impressive and likeable trait.

I did enjoy the first Creed a lot, as a solid sports drama, but I have to say it’s entirely possible I had an even better time watching Creed II, for its connections to the series’ past as much as its own very real merits as a drama. Eight films in, with critical plaudits still flowing, I expect the temptation will be to keep on going – but the Creed-Drago rematch was the obvious way to go with a sequel (even if it seemed quite unlikely to me it would ever get made, two and a bit years ago). I’m not sure if they could find a worthwhile direction to take this story in – but based on the strength of the first two films, I’d happily give them the benefit of the doubt. This is excellent entertainment.

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Context is important when you write about films. Writing about a new movie is different to covering an old classic; as you may have noticed if you’ve read around this blog, when I’m writing about an older film, especially a slightly dubious genre movie, I cover the plot in much more detail and am much less bothered about spoiling the end. There’s also the issue that with an older film, there’s often some sort of consensus, which I’m either agreeing with or kicking against (not that this isn’t often the case with new films too). Hindsight can often give you a whole new perspective on a film – I imagine it would be quite interesting to go back and read the original reviews of The Fast and the Furious from 2001, given this mildly credible crime drama has since gone on to spawn a ridiculous, world-conquering action movie franchise.

Speaking of mighty franchises, I see that a sequel to Creed is on the cards – currently trading under the imaginative title of Creed II. I don’t know, Creed II just doesn’t do it for me – and if you’re going to go with the whole Roman numerals thing, just bite the bullet and call it Rocky VIII, for that is really what we’re talking about, after all.

I imagine that the original Rocky, directed by John G Avildsen, got rather favourable reviews back in 1976 – this was a movie which won the Best Picture Oscar, after all – but anyone suggesting they would still be making sequels to it 40 years later would surely have been laughed out of their job. Five or ten years later, with an increasingly ridiculous sequel appearing every few years, that might not have seemed quite so improbable, but at the same time you possibly wouldn’t have predicted that the most recent films (thinking mainly here of Creed and Rocky Balboa) would turn out to be quite as accomplished as was the case.

rocky

This is, of course, the film which is the foundation stone of Sylvester Stallone’s career, following a slightly chequered past as a walk-on and in low-budget genre films (he was in the original Death Race 2000, for instance). Stallone plays Rocky (duh), a thirty-year old journeyman boxer, living in Philadelphia, whose career in the ring has never really taken off. He is, putting it frankly, going nowhere, and has been forced to take a job as a debt-collector for a small-time local mobster just to pay the rent and feed his pet tortoises. His attempts to romance the timid sister (Talia Shire) of his boozy friend (Burt Young) are meeting with equally unimpressive results.

But everything changes for Rocky when the incumbent world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), finds himself with a big fight scheduled but no-one willing to fight him. Mainly for the publicity (and also, if we’re honest, because the plot demands it) Creed decides to fight an unknown boxer instead, and naturally his people decide his opponent, or victim, will be Rocky.

Looking at the original Rocky again now, it’s hard not to conclude that, for all his success, Sylvester Stallone has spent most of the intervening forty years essentially slumming it, as both an actor and in other roles. Whether or not Rocky actually deserved its Best Picture win is a moot point nowadays, but it is still a well-made and engaging story, powered by a strong performance by Stallone himself – Rocky may not be too bright, and makes his living by beating people half to death, but he is essentially a nice guy and a human being whom it is possible to relate to. The fact that he created this character indicates that Stallone is a cut above people like Arnie, whose performances usually struggle to maintain one dimension, let alone anything more challenging. And yet Stallone has spent a disproportionate amount of time appearing in knuckle-dragging action movies (is it worth mentioning that Expendables 4 is due to appear before Creed II?).

I suppose that’s just where the money has been, but it’s a shame, for Rocky shows the big man can do proper drama – I suppose Rocky is technically a sports movie, but it doesn’t feel at all generic, being more of a character study, and a carefully naturalistic one at that – there are many scenes of Rocky hanging around in his rather grotty neighbourhood, a long sequence depicting his first date with Adrian, some ever-so-slightly melodramatic stuff with Burt Young and also Burgess Meredith (playing Rocky’s trainer), and so on. (One piece of trivia in wide circulation is that this film marks the screen debut of most-credited-man-in-Star Trek Michael Dorn, who plays one of Apollo Creed’s bodyguards. Not that he’s exactly easy to spot. He isn’t even wearing the prosthetic forehead.)

There isn’t actually a huge amount of your actual fisticuffs in Rocky, beyond a brief glimpse of Rocky in action right at the start of the film, and of course the climactic bout between him and Creed which makes up the third act. (There isn’t actually much Creed in the film, and the failure to establish more of a personal relationship between the two men strikes me as the film missing a trick – Carl Weathers makes the most of what he’s given, though.) I’m not quite sure why, but for me the concluding battle in the ring felt just a little bit perfunctory and underdeveloped – it felt like there should have been a few more peaks and troughs before the final bell.

Still, like I said, it isn’t really about the boxing, it’s about character (in every sense), whether that’s expressed by being a nice guy about the neighbourhood, refusing to break someone’s thumbs despite your boss telling you to, being resolute in pursuit of the girl of your dreams, running up a flight of steps a lot, or just being punched in the head two hundred and thirty times and still refusing to fall over. It may be that the reason why the Rocky series has retained the ability to keep bouncing back and producing surprisingly credible entries is simply because it started off as a straightforward, seriously-intended drama, rather than anything more brash or generic. I honestly thought Creed would mark the end of the road for this particular story, but as this original reminds us, you should never assume Rocky is out for the count.

 

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‘You’re the first person who’s called it Rocky VII,’ said the guy at the sweetshop, looking amused. (The larger city centre Odeon has undergone yet another refurb to abolish its actual ticket desk entirely, which only confirms the subliminal message the place gives off: namely, that it’s a place which is mainly in the business of selling drinks and snacks of various kinds, with the showing of the odd film an occasional sideline.) Well, look, it’s about characters from the Rocky series, it has ‘The Rocky Legacy‘ prominently on the poster, and – fercryinoutloud – it even features a very prominent appearance from Sylvester Stallone himself as Rocky Balboa. Calling the damn thing Rocky VII strikes me as entirely reasonable.

creed

However, the name on the title card is Creed. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, and you might initially be a bit wary of the whole enterprise, given the current tendency for every once-profitable franchise to be disinterred and returned to theatres via some kind of cinematic necromancy. Frankly, I thought they were pushing it with the release of Rocky Balboa (aka, you guessed it, Rocky VI), nearly ten years ago. At the time a friend asked me what I thought that movie was going to be like, quality-wise. ‘Depends on whether or not he gets beaten to death,’ I said, because you can only suspend disbelief so far, and a movie about a pushing-60 restauranteur taking on the world heavyweight boxing champion and lasting more than 30 seconds is already making unreasonable demands of the audience, I would say.

But back to Creed, which concerns the illegitimate posthumous progeny of Rocky’s opponent/rival/friend Apollo Creed from the first four movies, played by Carl Weathers (not appearing here, for obvious reasons). Said child’s name is Adonis, or Donnie, and the lad has something of a rough childhood – having your father beaten to death by Dolph Lundgren in a crude piece of Reaganite propaganda can have that effect on you, I suppose.

Anyway, having been adopted by Mrs Huxtable from The Cosby Show, Donnie grows up to be Michael B Jordan, who must be terribly relieved he already had this movie in the pipeline following his participation in the catastrophic Fantastic Four adaptation last year. Donnie decides to pack in his job and have a go at being a boxer like his dad was, but no-one in his native Los Angeles will train him. What else has an aspiring pugilist to do but head off to Philadelphia and persuade his father’s great rival to be his trainer…?

Twist my arm and I will admit that I have perhaps been a bit glib and flippant about this movie so far, perhaps even more than usual, and that this is largely because of its connection with the six (extremely variable) previous Rocky films. But to suggest that Creed should be treated as a standalone film, solely on its own merits, strikes me as being a mite disingenuous: the film trades heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the original characters and their stories, and it’s the contrast between the day-to-day naturalism of Donnie’s life and the almost mythic backstory of the film that gives it much of its traction.

On a more technical level, you could certainly argue that the early section of the film is very contrived – just why does Donnie decide to pack in a very good job in favour of getting beaten half to death on a regular basis? Just why is it that no-one will train someone with his obvious talent? The film doesn’t quite work hard enough to explain these things, preferring to just get on with it. You could, I suppose, also have a go at some parts of the film for their excessive sentimentality, but then if you’re going to criticise a Rocky film for being sentimental you clearly haven’t quite worked out the rules of engagement here.

The fact is that, once you accept it’s going to be sentimental in places and the story is going to be an archetypal journey featuring no real surprises, Creed is actually an extremely effective film. The sillier excesses of past films in the series are discreetly passed over (the exact circumstances of Apollo Creed’s death are passed over, we just hear that he died in the ring), and this is a sensible, serious drama about a young man following his dream, pursuing a largely convincing romance (Tessa Thompson plays his love interest), and forging a quasi-paternal relationship. That this prompts Rocky himself to reconnect with the world is handled pleasingly, and Stallone’s performance is extremely creditable, although the script does seem tailored to his strengths.

Of course, every Rocky film has to conclude with a bruising encounter in the ring, and Creed is no exception, as Donnie, Rocky, and their team jet off to Liverpool to take on the world champion. (I suppose you could write a thesis on how the different Rocky movies reflect changes in real-world boxing – Apollo Creed in the first film was a charismatic showman, clearly based on Ali, while the main opponent here is an unpleasant, heavily-tattooed thug.) The film does just enough to make it plausible that a tyro fighter like Donnie would be taking on such a prominent figure.

And the actual fight sequences in this film are excellent – Coogler opts to depict an early fight via what appears to be a single unbroken take, but the climactic battle is a bit more traditional in every sense, and would be very much at home in any of the other films (for a long time I was convinced we weren’t going to get to hear the famous Rocky fanfare at all, but it shows up at a key moment here, with the kind of impact you’d expect). I must confess by this point the film had completely won me over and I was really caught up in the story, which, if nothing else, shows that this is a very good film that does everything it sets out to.

Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it. This film has less of a valedictory feel to it than Rocky Balboa, but even so I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be the final round for this particular franchise (an extraordinarily unwise prediction, given the state of modern cinema, I know). If so, it is finishing on a definite high.

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