' ' Cinema Romantico: Creed II

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Creed II

If “Creed” was in dialogue with its predecessors’ history, “Creed II” is content to merely mimic it, as Sylvester Stallone, who has spent a career rewriting the formula that made him famous, rewrites “Rocky IV” for a whole new generation, though eliminating the Cold War tension. No, the tension here is fathers and sons, and hubris, so much hubris that the boxers both do and do not seem to know what they are fighting for. Boxing, of course, is inherently individualistic and violent, which is why Marvelous Marvin Hagler became something like a rageful monk in the run-up to bouts, and why Max Baer stayed down against Joe Louis, and why Sonny Liston may well have been, in his own way, the most honest man in boxing. “Creed II” seems to understand this too, if only sparingly, acknowledging it without really dissecting it and then, irony-free, embracing it whole-heartedly.

Though “Creed II”pivots off the eponymous Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), son of the late Apollo, winning the heavyweight title, it begins not with Adonis but Viktor (Florian Munteanu) and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the latter the man who killed Apollo in the ring in as “Rocky IV” opened and was defeated by Rocky Balboa in the ring as “Rocky IV” ended. Director Steven Caple Jr. keeps the camera close to his characters in this sequence, removing any sense of place, making it seem like they could be anywhere, rendering what’s to come as Personal. And the handheld shot of the camera semi-circling Ivan evokes a “Bourne” movie as much as “Rocky”, painting him as even harsher villain than the first, living vicariously through his son. And while Muntenau’s performance is mostly just glowering, the movie at least places him just enough situations to specify how he’s under this dad’s thumb and not necessarily pleased.

This notion of fathers and sons – er, children – is furthered elucidated in the pregnancy of Bianca (Tessa Thompson), which Apollo’s widow Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad), who raised Adonis, deduces even before the couple, underscoring how she sees everything everyone else fails to, which we will address further momentarily. The pregnancy comes in tandem with Bianca and Adonis getting engaged and re-locating to Los Angeles, never mind his eventual fights, symptomatic of how the performances often get shoved aside for plot, though there are occasional moments when Thompson and Jordan’s chemistry is allowed to crackle as palpably as “Creed I”, like in the wake of discovering she is pregnant where together they emit excitement and fear in the same breaths.

Even with a baby girl on the way, Adonis agrees to fight Viktor when the latter, egged on by his father and a shady promoter (Russell Hornsby), goes on TV and taunts the Champ. After all, when another guy lays down a dare, as Brian Flanagan once presciently observed, a guy’s gotta take it. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) knows this sad truth and bows out as Adonis’s trainer after failing to talk his protégé down. The bout goes badly, leaving Adonis with a concussion when he fails to heed his agreed-upon strategy, an embodiment of masculine pride gone rogue.

If “Creed II” leans far too heavily on voiceover from real life sportscasters, mimicking our sports talk white noise modern hellscape, perhaps, but violating the let images speak for themselves cinematic pact, the one successful moment in this vein is ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt asking from the television screen “where’s Adonis Creed?” as a means to try and stoke a Creed/Drago rematch. As he poses this question, we see Adonis alone with his child, effectively answering the question, seeming to put little Amara first. And yet in a subsequent scene, Adonis takes his baby to the gym and then hits the speed bag, virtually nuzzling up to the latter, like one would an infant, linking the two, evoking the idea of his kid less as flesh and blood than a balm to heal his soul. Why the notion of what truly goes into rearing a child is mostly beside the point, which is why a movie that lingers in slow motion over boxing brutality forgoes an actual scene of childbirth (gross!), and why one of the movie’s most unintentionally stunning moments is Adonis responding to a query about Bianca post-pregnancy by incredulously remarking “She’s good”, as if up until that moment he had not even thought about how she was doing.

If these middle passages tease Adonis getting his groove back, he can only get all the way there by fighting and beating Viktor, a remedying of his masculine pride. It does not ring false, mind you, not  even if it’s just copying and pasting Rocky v Drago for a whole new generation. No, this is what boxing is, always and forever, evinced in a shot as awesome as it uproarious, where old Rocky and old Ivan stare each other down in the ring before Adonis and Viktor square off.

No one knows this truth better than Mary Ann. Early in the film, in one of the best scenes of the year, Adonis struggles to tell Mary Ann he has agreed to fight the young Drago. She already knows this, of course, not literally but emotionally, which Rashad makes clear simply by wielding her incomparable small, bemused smile. Though she gets a line sort of saying it, Rashad’s entire air in these moments suggests that Adonis is his father’s son. And though Adonis seeks her blessing, she tactfully refuses to give it. Why would she? What does it matter? Haven’t you heard? A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

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