Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Reserved Seating: CREED II

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who must break your jawn.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week we’re reviewing Creed II, the follow-up to 2015’s Creed and an extension of the story told in 1985’s Rocky IV. Director Ryan Coogler steps aside this time for Steven Caple Jr. to take the reins telling the continuing story of light heavyweight contender Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) under the tutelage of the legend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). This time Adonis is directly challenged by Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Rocky nemesis Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Both Dragos see fighting Adonis as a way of reclaiming their tarnished legacy in Russia. Adonis is eager to step back in the ring and face Viktor to avenge the death of his father, Apollo Creed (played in Rocky I-IV by Carl Weathers), all those years ago by the hands of Ivan Drago. Also returning from Creed are Adonis’s love Bianca (the great Tessa Thompson), his mother Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad) and trainer Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris), whose father trained Apollo in the early installments of the series.

Being a giant fan of Creed and the Rocky franchise, I was very much looking forward to Creed II. When I found out the storyline would pick up the Drago subplot, I was a little disappointed even if it seemed inevitable we’d get here eventually since Adonis’s character is so defined by his father’s shadow. I’m not the biggest fan of Rocky IV myself. I see it as a lower point in the franchise overall, but I will say Creed II (if nothing else) makes Rocky IV a better movie and also is a better continuation than IV really deserved. As a Rocky sequel, Creed II is pretty terrific. As a Creed follow-up, it’s a little underwhelming for me. On the whole, I liked Creed II and see it as a worthy addition to a franchise I absolutely adore. There are a lot of good moments in here. I think it’s going to be very interesting seeing where things go in Creed III, because at this point I mostly understand Adonis in reference to his father and that legacy and not much as a man himself. Rocky was the people’s champ; Adonis is more tortured. I’d like to see the franchise stretch Adonis more as his own character in the next installment. But for now, Creed II will work just fine. I didn’t find it as triumphant as the first Creed but it’s a better inII darkness movie than Star Trek.
Rob: I see what you did there. Before I get into the movie, I have to share the story of my terrible theatrical experience. Because of scheduling constraints, I saw Creed II at my local AMC Classic (otherwise known as the dirt theater). Around the 5:45 showtime, the blank screen kicked on and the MGM logo appeared. I was confused, as the lights hadn’t yet dimmed and no trailers had screened. We were then treated to the first 11-12 minutes of Creed II with no sound. The picture then stopped, and the house lights flickered on and off for about a minute and a half. Cool. After some negotiation with the theater staff, the lights finally dimmed for good and the trailers — including, no joke, the trailer for Creed II — began. Things were good from there until Donnie asked Rocky how he proposed to Adrian, at which point the film abruptly shut off again. A few more minutes, and then we started over — now with a totally mis-framed image shrunk way smaller than the space provided by the screen. If our friend Dana Buckler is reading, I’d love to know where he ranks this in the pantheon of Bad Theater Experiences.

Adam: Ugh!

Rob: Anyway. The movie. I think I’ve made it pretty clear throughout my tenure at the site just how much Creed means to me. Like you, I was concerned when I read that the sequel’s storyline would involve the Drago family, and I was flat-out horrified to learn that Stallone would take over directing duties. After everything Coogler did to reinvigorate the franchise, we’re going to follow it up with a Stallone vanity project? Not to mention the horrible optics of replacing a young director of color with another old white man. It’s just gross. My hopes for Creed II were kind of dead in the water at that point. But once Stallone handed directorial duties over to Caple (though he retains a screenplay credit) and the first trailer gave us a sense of how the Drago stuff was going to play, I got back on board. And it worked out! Creed II is a solid three-star movie. It doesn’t touch Creed, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a little clunkier, less creative, and less personal, but it’s a good Rocky sequel. What stood out to you most?
Adam: A few things: I’ll start with the deepening relationship between Adonis and Bianca. Part of it is the performances and chemistry between Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson and some of it is that their dynamic takes on a new maturity. It was nicely handled. I thought Russell Hornsby’s promoter character commenting on the mainstream collective remembrance (or lack thereof) of boxing champions was interesting. Also, the angle that Rocky accomplished what he set out to developing Adonis career and now feels he needs to pay attention to his own long-run happiness was fascinating. His estranged relationship with his own son makes him feel incomplete and Adonis and his battle with Viktor Drago is not only triggering for Rocky, but also in a lot of ways a waste of his time and energy. The fight means a lot more to Adonis (how could he not answer the call after being challenged by the son of the man who killed his dad?) but with Rocky it’s different because it aligns less with his own needs at this stage in his life. I loved that Rocky’s way of defeating the Dragos (leaving them in obscurity by refusing them their time in the limelight again) is completely at odds with what Adonis needs to do. What did you think of the tone of the movie? I joked this is Creed InII Darkness and that surprised me a little bit because Rocky IV is so silly. As much as I love that they took the material seriously in Creed II, it is less entertaining to me than many of the other installments. It’s the depressed Rocky movie.

Rob: Rocky’s arc was my biggest concern going in, and I agree that they found a good angle from which to approach his continual growth that went beyond the Wizened Old Mentor Guy. I like that both he and Bianca are forced to reckon with Donnie’s headstrong attitude in a more significant way this time; they can’t just celebrate it and point it in the right direction. They have to actually teach him patience, humility, and responsibility by letting him learn that actions have consequences. Speaking of Donnie, I love that he gets right and truly demolished in the first half of the movie. It adds weight to everything his mother told him about life with a bruised and beaten Apollo in Creed, which makes him think more seriously about how his health affects his own fledgling family. It also leads to my favorite scene in the movie: Rocky comes to visit Donnie in the ICU, and Donnie gives him this series of looks that mix rage, disgust, contrition, and heartbreak before bursting into tears. Rocky backs off -- he’s been in that spot and understands what Donnie’s going through -- but he’s still hurt. It’s such a powerful moment between people we love who love each other. Michael B. Jordan is so, so good in this role. As with Stallone, I’m going to have a hard time seeing him play any other part from now on.

As for the more somber tone, it may have worked a little bit more for me than for you. I think I’m a fan of darker sequels, actually. Creed II was never going to feel as new or interesting as Creed, so I like that they just dug right in and told their story without trying to replicate the whiz-bang flash of the first one. It’s not as traditionally entertaining, as you said, but these characters are worthy of a moodier, more contemplative episode every now and then. The highs of the first adventure (Rocky and Donnie in the gym; Donnie seeing a flash of his father before getting up off the mat) are replaced with quieter, more introspective lows (Donnie alone at the bottom of the swimming pool; Rocky’s final ringside moment of reflection). It’s just a different shade to explore. I like them both for different reasons.
Adam: Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of good little moments throughout Creed II. Getting back to Bianca for a second...I love that scene with her and Mary Ann where they commiserate on life as boxer’s wives and how tough of a spot they’re in having to help their boxer husbands find their self-esteem again after defeat. The whole Bianca character is great. I love Talia Shire as Adrian but it’s so refreshing to not have Bianca all “YOU HAVE TO STOP FIGHTING” all the time which Adrian devolved into over the course of the series. I agree with you, too, about Michael B. Jordan owning this performance. The scene where he has no idea what to do with his newborn baby so he finally just takes her to the gym to watch him punch the heavy bag is great. Question for you: do you think the series suffers from Adonis not having a friendly rival or a best friend character like Rocky had?

Rob: First, let me say that I totally agree about Bianca. I needed a bit more of her in this one, actually, more scenes about her internal conflict like the one you described. She’s so good as Donnie’s moral compass that a struggle with self-doubt would add interesting texture. I will say this, though: Seeing her at the head of Donnie’s entourage at the start of the last fight made me want to stand up and cheer. She’s so great! Anyway, I’m not sure how I feel about the friendly rival idea. Donnie’s connections with Bianca and Rocky are so much deeper and more complicated than Rocky’s were with Adrian or Mickey (if we’re doing straight comparisons), so is there room for more characters? I’m not sure if we need a friend, either. Rocky was always affable and folksy, whereas Donnie is more a loner. We like seeing Rocky have people to bounce off and win over, but I think we like Donnie when he’s confident and focused. His battles are all internal. It’s definitely something to consider for Part III, but I don’t think we’ve lost anything by not going there yet.

Should we talk about the Drago family a bit? Lundgren and Munteanu have maybe ten lines between them, but they’re able to effortlessly communicate all we need to know in their facial expressions and body language. It’s a heartbreaking relationship, actually, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Donnie might have been subjected to similar pain and pressure had Apollo survived. All that ego and bombast? You know Apollo would be pushing his son to follow in his footsteps, and I can’t imagine it all coming from a healthy place. I went into this thinking that Ivan Drago would be little more than fan service, something for Rocky to deal with when he had no other part to play in the story. I even rolled my eyes a bit when Brigitte Nielsen walked in. Like, why? But Viktor’s storyline ended up being a really wonderful parallel to Donnie’s without taking up too much space or being too obvious. Viktor seeing those empty chairs while pulling himself up off the mat was a rough moment.
Adam: Viktor is fine. I like that he’s very aware of being a pawn for his dad (he doesn’t get why Ivan wants Russia’s favor again after they were so fickle towards him in the past) but this path is all he’s ever been raised to follow. Dolph Lundgren rules in this movie. He’s become a really comfortable screen presence over the years and some of my favorite bits with him are at the beginning of Creed II when you don’t know what he’s thinking. I got chills when he and Viktor were on the steps by the Rocky statue. By the time Ivan and Rocky have their first meeting, I was like “Is this going to be a Karate Kid III scenario, where the Dragos fuck up Rocky’s restaurant until he agrees to be in Adonis’s corner?” I’m glad that’s not the route they took, but I dunno...that would have been kinda fun too. Reel talk: Wasn’t Adonis a light heavyweight before and now he’s not? That part confused me.

Rob: I thought the same thing! There’s no way he’s much more than a buck eighty-five. Also, why did Rocky take the three-day train ride to LA rather than fly there? I mean, he flew to Russia, right? Could he not afford a plane ticket? Didn’t he fly to whatever hospital Donnie was in earlier in the movie? And how did that streetlight subplot resolve? The utility companies can be tough to deal with, but not Rocky Balboa tough, you know? Anyway. You predicted that Stallone would be done with the franchise after Creed II. You want to expand on that?

Adam: Sure. I think when Rocky tells Adonis that it’s his time now, that was when Stallone basically passed the torch to the Creed character and Michael B. Jordan. I love the way Creed II wrapped for Rocky’s character. I’ll never understand why fans want Rocky to die in one of these movies. Those people aren’t idiots overall, but they’re being idiots when they say that. Creed II wisely knows that home is where my boy Milo Ventimiglia lives. Mark Ahn from me for Creed II. I like when he had to stand in a tire to punch a dude super close during the training montage.

Rob: Mark Ahn for me, as well. I liked when Donnie had to lift those weights with his neck. That looked brutal. What are we doing for next week?

Adam: We’re going to help you all with holiday shopping suggestions for the movie lovers in your life with our inaugural Holiday Gift Guide! Does your beau like Hereditary? Why not get them an 8x10 still of Toni Collette in Muriel’s Wedding that they can put on their fridge? That and more next week. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. I too was bothered by Creeds ascent to the Heavyweight division. Especially since it led to the "you can't fight him, hes too big subplot." That's what weight classes are for, movie! Anyway, it was okay.

  2. My AMC still has some of those same problems sometimes, but before AMC bought it it was owned by Carmike who you could count on a problem every time with the screen as you described it.

    Its one of those screens that extend on the sides. I've seen:
    -the screen not extend, but the movie fits it (most probable and most frustrating, because Im the only one that notices, while everyone else just thinks its a small screen rarely fixed even when complaining, they just give you a free ticket).

    -the screen not extend and then the movie is playing over the sides on the red curtains
    -the screen extends but the picture stays small (as you described)
    -only being able to see the tops of words on subtitles because out of focus

  3. Hey guys. First time caller here. I have two points, then I'll hang up and listen to your responses.
    1) My guess is they moved him up to heavyweight because that's the most glamorous weight class. And the one Rocky and Apollo fought in. Plus, it's anything over 200 lbs, so it's not *that* far off.
    2) I agree that we saw Rocky pass the torch to Donnie. As much as I love Rocky Balboa, AND I LOVE ROCKY BALBOA, this was such a nice sendoff for that character, that I'd hate to see it "ruined" by him returning for CREED III. The image of him sitting ringside post-fight in the chair while Donnie and company celebrated in the ring will stick with me for a long, long time.

    1. Thanks for the call, Mike. I agree that Rocky's done, but my question is this: Who takes over Adrian's if he's in Vancouver? I know a guy who's available. His name is me.

    2. Ivan Drago takes over Adrian's and changes the name to Ludmilla's.

    3. Riske takes over Adrian's and changes the name to Milo's.

    4. NASA takes over and calls it Apollo's

    5. Wait, Erika. When you guys were in Philly, didn't Charlie say that if he had a bar, he'd name it Rosie's? He can take over after NASA.

  4. I sure miss Carl Weathers in these movies. I wonder how the dude feels, so much of these movies are "about" his character. You'd think they could at least work him in as a ghost or something. Ok maybe not.

    1. If Creed III is literally about Adonis fighting the ghost of his father, then I am already buying tickets