Saturday, December 1, 2018

Because you're dangerous


Released with the best sense of timing that just about any film's ever had, what would've already been (let's not say "just") a great and satisfying sequel in any other time and place becomes, in the November of 2018, something close enough to perfection to count.

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.
Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone
With Michael B. Jordan (Adonis "Donnie" Johnson), Sylvester Stallone (Robert "Rocky" Balboa), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Wood Harris (Tony "Little Duke" Evers), Florian Munteanu (Viktor Drago), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), and Brigitte Nielsen (Ludmilla Drago)

Spoiler alert: moderate

2015's Creed has grown on me; if I already loved it at the time, I love it even more now, and it turns out I significantly underrated one of the few genuinely excellent pictures of what I hope shall remain the worst film year of the 2010s.  But Creed's not a masterpiece.  Creed II might be a masterpiece.

This is not the consensus, and while I possess enough self-awareness to know that my own perceptions veer idiosyncratic, it's clearly not gotten the fairest possible shake.  For a variety of reasons: it's a sequel; it's a sequel to Rocky IV; it's predictable; the director of the film to immediately precede it in the franchise abandoned it, stationing himself as a producer instead.  On the other hand, you'll forgive me for pointing out that every last one of these things was already true for Creed, and if Creed was wholeheartedly embraced mostly because it excavated a vein of nostalgia for the Rocky movies while freshening their aesthetics and introducing a well-etched, original hero, so that Creed II feels less "new" than its predecessor, I can't imagine a more unfair metric by which to judge it.  I mean, I'm really sorry your boxing film sequel isn't formally daring or narratively radical.  Even if Creed II winds up so inordinately crowd-pleasing and successfully full-tilt melodramatic that, in 2018, the old-fashioned thrills it offers (in combination with the tremendous metaphoric punch it carries) kind of make it feel as new as anything this year.

Best to judge it as an expansion, anyway, and Creed II is a superb sequel in a way that not enough sequels are, managing to deepen its progenitor while (mostly) retaining the forward momentum of the old story and still telling a new story of its own.  So: we recall that Adonis "Donnie" Johnson, the bastard son of slain legend Apollo Creed, spent most of his first decade alive as a forgotten orphan, until his father's betrayed widow brought him under her wing, perhaps less out of the kindness of her heart (though she was always kind) and more to have one last piece of her husband to hold.  We recall further that Donnie never quite got over the pain of his abandonment, or his perception of being a keepsake rather than a person, or his feeling of belonging to a legacy that kept him in its shadow, but never kept him warm.  And we recall that, thanks to this and to other things, Creed was one of the most psychologically sophisticated dramas of the decade, no less so for being equally focused on men beating each other half to death (and, for like twenty minutes, movie cancer).  Hence if Creed was about Donnie finally accepting his father's name, Creed II is about him actually making it his own.  And, sure, I see that look on your face; but this distinction is not entirely without a difference, honest.  Well, when we catch up with Donnie three years after his defeat-by-split-decision against Ricky Conlan, he's made good on the promise he showed in that battle, and become heavyweight champion of the world.  And he's about to pop the question to his girlfriend Bianca, too, who, in her three years, has proceeded from a local Philadelphia musician to an artist poised for stardom, making the best of her remaining time as her degenerative hearing loss looms.

But soon comes a challenger to Donnie's success, and not just any challenger, but Viktor Drago, son of the Soviet superhuman Ivan Drago, the man who killed Apollo in the ring thirty-three years ago.  Advised by Rocky Balboa, still his trainer, to ignore the upstart, the old warhorse's wisdom falls on increasingly deaf ears as Viktor and Ivan chip away with reminders that no Creed has ever beaten a Drago, and, indeed, have only ever died trying.  Rocky, as aware as ever that it was his hesitancy to end the 1985 fight that cost Apollo his life, simply walks away from the son he won't sacrifice now; Donnie, vengeful and bereft of the only father figure he's ever had, spirals into an ill-judged battle with Viktor, and things don't go well for him there.  Both beaten and bowed, Donnie has to put the pieces of his life (and body) back together, and, as he's faced with both the birth of his child and a title belt he retains only because the Russian cheated, his erstwhile trainer demands he come to a fuller understanding of why he fights at all.

Creed II exceeds even its predecessor when it comes to the sheer agony and ecstasy of its sport—and it's worth mentioning it, simply because it's so well-understood that it's almost never articulated, that of all the various subtypes of sports film, those involving boxing (or other modes of martial art) are always likeliest to be the best, or, at least, the most universally-appealing.  For fight movies reduce the arcane elaborations of "sports" to elemental violence, and almost everybody enjoys that, even if they have no particular interest in watching men (sometimes women) play with various balls.  Creed II boils its sport down even further, into images and impressions: its vision of boxing is as mythic as the franchise has ever been, and almost mystical, from the way it subliminally accepts that Donnie's a masochist whose soul can only find expression in the ring, to the descriptions of Donnie's and Rocky's motivations that can merely dance around the mystery of their shared passion with magic words and repetition, to the final rebuilding of Adonis Creed in a place best understood as a kind of underworld, and which is explicitly called hell, where Rocky makes him box fire.

Much of Creed II's success is bound up in such dreamy stylistic fillips: Creed II finds us with a handpicked new director, Steve Caple Jr., taking over for Ryan Coogler (who obviously did not "waste his time" on the billion-dollar blockbuster Black Panther, but did squander his talent).  Caple certainly hews to Coogler's established style—I'm just confused when people say that there's an objective distinction between Kramer Morgenthau's cinematography on this one and Maryse Alberti's on the last one—and both films feature the same steely grey look at Philadelphia and colors that only reach full saturation in the ring, as well as an emphasis on handheld verite.  Yet, if anything, Caple has more ideas, and realizes them more fully, above all the way he uses repeated motifs and the frame itself as devices to tell his story.  The camera following the Dragos up the museum steps like Balboa before them, to look over Donnie's city like conquerors, that's excellent; the tracking shot that ultimately leaves Donnie as a lonesome god sprinting endlessly across his desert purgatory, that's pure perfection; the ascent into full-on impressionism as the arena lights fade and Donnie slams the mat over and over in determination, that's perfection twice over.

The fights themselves retain all the wincing immediacy of their forerunners; Caple may not be as innovative at staging them as the Coog was, but there's ultimately only so many ways you can stage a boxing match, so let's not be unjust to Caple for merely doing them masterfully. (Meanwhile, the little novelties are memorable here: Caple's crosscutting between Donnie sinking into a pool while the women in his life discuss his choices is standard enough, but the way their overdubbed voices gurgle through the water whenever his ears drop below the surface would be mildly fascinating, even if it didn't suggest that, yeah, Donnie can hear them, he's just not listening.  Still, I'll concede that Creed II is noticeably worse-cut than its predecessor—Caple doesn't seem to give a crap about strict continuity—but I suspect that's just Caple and his three-person editing team privileging performance above our awareness of microscopic errors.)

And throughout, it does place the greatest burden on Michael B. Jordan's shoulders.  He triumphs, as he's wont to do.  One day, I'll look forward to seeing Jordan stretch beyond roles that take advantage of his uncanny ability to gain your sympathy and understanding even as he appears a twitch away from rage; but that day is not today, and Creed and Creed II share the distinction of being the two vehicles that have used Jordan's best trick to its most sublime effect.  Caple may be even more sensitive than Coogler was to Jordan's ability to command the screen with just the way he holds his eyes in a sideways glance.  Meanwhile, this film about athletic perfectionism has nothing but love for the perfected athletes it takes as its subjects, frequently taking time to remind you of their inspirational beauty.  It's an earnest celebration of the male form without the thick layer of irony that tends to degrade every other effort these days.

There are other actors in the film, too, I guess: notably, there's Sylvester Stallone, whom you won't be tremendously surprised co-wrote the script, though it's still a self-deprecating one (Rocky dodders along with a funny, melancholy, almost Andy Rooneyish distracted crankiness), and it's definitely one that never permits Rocky to be anything more than a supporting character in Donnie's drama.  Rocky's the mentor—and the oracle, who channels the father—both of whom Donnie has to surpass.  That's something Rocky has to come to terms with, too.  Then again, not every criticism of the film is off the mark: if your opinion of Bianca, like mine, was that she was a mirror to Donnie with as much potential as a character as he had, then, sadly, Creed II disagrees.  Tessa Thompson took nearly Creed's whole runtime to finally devolve into a standard-issue Boxing Movie Girlfriend.   Creed II starts out looking like it's going to correct that, right up until it doubles down on it via motherhood; one suspects Thompson's musical side was mollified by Caple featuring her in a pair of production numbers that, still, exist mostly only to support Donnie.  But if this is the film's only real, thoroughgoing flaw, it's hard to separate it from the whole: Creed II cares so much about Donnie that it can't really find the time or energy to care about anybody else.  Thus the job of this cast, in this movie, is to keep everything around Donnie elevated to the highest possible levels of emotion—a soap opera, in the best sense of the term.  And that's certainly one of Creed II's great strengths: the way it keeps you at the same fever-pitch as its hero for a full 130 minutes without ever being wearying, punctuating its melodrama with two explosively cathartic boxing matches that define one of the clearest two-act structures a movie's had in a while.  Perhaps more movies should try it.

If it cares about anyone even half as much as Donnie, though, it's its villains, fashioning yet another mirror in the form of Viktor Drago (Creed made nimble-enough gestures toward the same thing with Conlan, but Viktor is vastly more complete).  A frighteningly-large boxer by trade, Florian Muntuneau was surely cast for his size and profession—certainly moreso than his resemblance to his "dad," Dolph Lundgren—and, however they do it, the 6'4" fighter dwarfs the 6'0" actor a lot more than just those four inches would suggest.  But Muntuneau's surprisingly humane, assisted mightily (and maybe just as surprisingly) by an excellent Lundgren, who embodies all the anger and self-recrimination of thirty-three wasted years in his cold, dead, spiteful eyes.  Viktor, built from the ground up by Ivan to restore the family honor, is a wonderfully emotional machine; Creed II draws Viktor and Ivan in short, precise strokes, as the flipside of the man defined by a father's absence.  It would not be out of line to suggest that the teariest moment in this often-teary film belongs to Ivan Drago, and this is shocking enough I wonder if it's a spoiler.

But it is shocking, for Rocky IV certainly wasn't interested in Ivan Drago's humanity.  It was interested in Ivan Drago as an enemy nation incarnated into a punchable form; yet, in this regard, Creed II is every inch the sequel to Rocky IV you could've hoped for.  Sure: "Creed vs. Drago" was always such an obvious pitch that I can't imagine it would not have been made eventually, regardless of whether it signified anything or not.  But it was kismet that it wound up happening in the alternate universe we've found ourselves living in, so even if Creed II is never willing to characterize its leads as anything less than people with real feelings, Donnie and Viktor and Ivan alike surely still inhabit this film's world of symbol.  So, while I like both Creeds substantially more than any instance of Chris Nolan's Bat-films, I can't help but think of this sequel's parallels to his second, The Dark Knight.  Released in the summer of 2008, that film also had the benefit of the kind of generational timeliness only the most fortunate of movies ever have access to.  Likewise, it benefited from Batman Begins' withholding of its hero's destined nemesis.  And when the Joker did finally appear, in order to clunkily ask questions about security and freedom in a post-9/11 America, critics and audiences ate up the clunky answers with a spoon.  Damn thing even has a "themes" section in its Wikipedia article.

Creed II is never clunky, so maybe everyone is just ignoring the resonance of this sequel's beating heart and pounding fists because what it has to say is so simple that any idiot could grasp it (though that never stopped anybody from opining about Rocky IV, you know?).  Either way, in a world where film criticism has degenerated to a frustrating degree into amateur political commentary and wokeness checklisting, it's downright bizarre to have seen not so much as a single review of Creed II that embraces what fate has made of its program.  I chalk it up to the average liberal's inability to be bloodthirstily patriotic even when the situation calls for it; God, there's probably somebody complaining that they didn't cast ethnic Russians to play the Dragos.  But Creed II's as elegant an allegory about America's relationship with our once and future enemy (even about Russia's relationship with itself) as Rocky IV's own Cold War allegory was brutally direct; for what it's worth, Creed II's one of the few pieces of pop in the past twenty-seven years that actually seems to give a shit about "Russia" as a real entity, rather than the dreary place gangsters come from.  Creed II uses the same graceful, subtextual approach its immediate predecessor did, when it came to its own quiet sociological observations about race and class, but that doesn't make Creed II's design any less unmistakable: the Dragos, as we see when Brigitte Nielsen's silent Ludmilla Drago icily deigns to recognize that her ex-husband and son even still exist, are Russia.  They're the USSR's collapse; they're the Russian nation's lost territory and lost geopolitical standing; they're the justified and unjustified blame Russia puts on America for its own problems; they're the pathological, underhanded, self-destructive lengths to which Russia has gone to try to get their superpower back.  And, yes: that means that what Creed II's about most of all is punching Vladimir Putin in the fucking skull till he fucking cries.  So maybe it's not worth "discussing"; but it's absolutely worth experiencing.

Score: 10/10

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