Film Review: Creed II (2018)

Release Date: November 14th, 2018 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Steven Caple Jr.
Written by: Juel Taylor, Sylvester Stallone, Sascha Penn, Cheo Hodari Coker
Based on: characters by Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Ludwig Goransson
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Russell Hornsby, Carl Weathers (archive footage)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New Line Cinema, 130 Minutes

Review:

“Because of you… I lose everything. My country. Respect. You ever see stray dogs in the Ukraine? They go for days without food. People spit on them, they are nothing. No home. Only will to survive… to fight. I have son. All he knows… [raises his fists] …is this.” – Ivan Drago

I really anticipated and then liked the first Creed movie but I was even more excited for where a second one could go.

The reason being, is even back in 2015, I kind of knew they were going to revisit the Ivan Drago storyline that was Rocky IV. Naturally, it felt unavoidable, as Apollo Creed’s son becomes his own man in the boxing realm but the death of his father is still a very big chip on his shoulder. It’s the one thing that eats away at his soul and has to be conquered for the man to become great. Plus, Dolph Lundgren is still tight with Stallone and it made sense on every level.

So even though I liked the previous one, this chapter in the Rocky franchise is a bit better. The Drago story here was great and it had so much depth that it almost improves Rocky IV, which was severely lacking in narrative and character development. Ivan Drago isn’t just a Russian machine raising another Russian machine, here he is a man, a real character, broken, tired, angry and ready to get what he feels is justice for his honor.

Dolph Lundgren was absolutely superb in this. He has more lines and screen time than he did in Rocky IV and you get to see him vulnerable. Also, his relationship with his son is really good and by film’s end, you see this intimidating Russian monster become a real father. But that also gets into a bit of a problem I have with the film, which I’ll get into towards the end of this when I start talking about the few negatives this movie had.

As can be expected with Rocky films, especially after Rocky Balboa and Creed, the movie was solid in its writing, its direction, its score and its acting. From a technical and performance standpoint, there isn’t really anything bad you can say about how this looks and feels on screen.

One person that really captured my attention was Phylicia Rashad. I loved her in the first one but she had more time to shine here and she really takes over the scenes she’s in. She doesn’t overshadow the other actors but her presence and her spirit lifts up their already good performances. Every scene she’s in is meaningful and frankly, why hasn’t Rashad been in more films and television over the years? Maybe she doesn’t want to work as much after her long stint on The Cosby Show and Cosby but this role made her feel like a well aged Clair Huxtable, as I just felt like she was America’s mom once again. She is probably the strongest character in this franchise apart from Adrian, considering what she’s lost and how she still supports Adonis and Rocky, despite what she could lose in doing so.

I was surprised to see Brigitte Nielsen in this. It was absolutely great that she appears in two key scenes. The reason I was surprised by it, is I hadn’t heard anything about her participating and assumed she just wouldn’t be in it due to her divorce from Stallone a few years after Rocky IV. While she doesn’t really share scenes or dialogue with Stallone, I hope the two of them found peace with their divorce from three decades ago. Seeing her in this though, made me wish she had a real verbal exchange with Lundgren and Stallone on screen.

As far as the negatives go, there are only three and they’re minor.

First off, the speech scenes where a character is down and they need to be lifted up by someone else weren’t as strong in this film as they have been in Rocky-related movies of the past. They were okay but they lacked emotional impact and real oomph. None of them were really memorable, except for the scene where Ivan Drago has to get through to his son Viktor. In that moment, Drago has to swallow his pride, stop blaming Rocky and admits that he simply lost a fight, all those years ago.

That brings me to my second negative, as it also involves Ivan Drago.

The scene where Ivan and Rocky come face to face, Ivan unloads on Rocky about what Rocky cost him. Rocky kind of just sits there and takes it, not saying too much. Part of me was waiting for Rocky to tell Drago that he lost more: his best friend, his mind, his body, etc. Because if comparing notes, Drago took more from Rocky. But that didn’t happen and I felt like it needed to, to make Drago think and reflect on his loss and how he’s not just a victim.

The third negative is that you are obviously pulling for Adonis but as the final fight starts to come to its end, there are events that hit you emotionally for Viktor Drago. His mother abandons him, as she leaves her seat when the fight takes a turn. It’s a scene that is done so effectively that in that moment, you want Viktor to win. While I think empathizing more with the Dragos can definitely be explored, the way it’s done in that moment, sort of took the momentum away from the fight and the ending. It felt as if the film was going for a twist but then didn’t commit to it.

Now those negatives don’t ruin the film but they do prevent it from being a great motion picture. Still, I certainly want a Creed III and I want to see the Dragos find peace and to regain their family honor. I think the next natural step is for the two sons of the franchise’s biggest tragedy to both overcome the effects of it and find a bond with one another. And for Rocky and Ivan to embrace… but that’s probably asking a lot.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: the first Creed, as well as all the Rocky films before it.

Film Review: Rocky IV (1985)

Release Date: November 27th, 1985
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Vince DiCola, Bill Conti (Rocky themes)
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Tony Burton, Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielsen, James Brown

United Artists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 90 Minutes

Review:

“Going in one more round when you don’t think you can – that’s what makes all the difference in your life.” – Rocky

For some reason, Sylvester Stallone felt compelled to keep making Rocky movies. I’m glad that he did though, as the character still lives on today in the Creed film series, which was a spin off after giving Rocky Balboa six of his own movies from 1976 to 2006.

Rocky IV was the first Rocky movie that I saw in the theater. I was six at the time and I had seen Rocky III but the experience with this one blew my mind. Plus, it had a Cold War twist, which was something I was just starting to understand at the time, thanks to a plethora of ’80s movies that dealt with it.

This film also introduced me to Dolph Lundgren, who would become on of my favorite action stars of the era and really, I still love Dolph today. In a lot of ways, he was also the glue of the picture, even if his Ivan Drago character had no personality here. That was sort of the point though, he was a literal killing machine, emphasis on machine. He was like a Terminator with boxing gloves that was propped up by his country as their hero but all he wanted to do was to crush his opponents, regardless of patriotism and Cold War propaganda.

The real villain, as far as being the mouthpiece anyway, was Drago’s wife, played by Brigitte Nielsen, who was on the cusp of marrying Stallone in real life. She would also appear with her then husband in 1986’s Cobra. I liked Nielsen in the ’80s, even if her career was partially propelled by her marriage. I wish she would have stayed in the right groove and continued to be a presence in action pictures but she didn’t do much of anything memorable after 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II and that could very well be due to her marriage with Stallone ending so quickly. But I’m not going to get all celebrity gossipy like TMZ.

For fans of the series, this film starts off with a solid blow to the gut, as within the first half hour, you get to see the aging Apollo Creed sign on for an exhibition with the Soviet boxer, leading to his death after being pummeled in the ring. The rest of the film deals with Rocky needing to defeat the monster that murdered his friend for sport.

It’s easy to chop this up as a revenge flick but I think it is more about a boxer seeking out justice in the only way he knows how and about climbing an impossible mountain, which is made obvious by a scene where Rocky literally conquers a mountain. However, it is also a critique on the senseless nature of the Cold War which had Americans and Soviets uneasy and paranoid for decades.

Many people have called this a propaganda picture, it isn’t. Does it beat you over the head with Americana? Sure. But it uses its platform and its political context to deliver a message of peace and hope. By the time you get to the end, Rocky’s big speech in the final scene isn’t pro-American or anti-Soviet, it’s pro-human and anti-war. It was also fairly prophetic considering the massive changes that happened in the world and the Cold War finally coming to an end just a few years later. Hey, maybe Rocky Balboa helped in tearing down the Berlin Wall.

Rocky IV is the most important film in the series because it carries a message bigger than the film itself. While the first is the best motion picture and the most inspiring, Rocky IV is the one that made me see the world differently. Granted, I was a six year-old clutching his G.I. Joe figures but it may have been instrumental in making me who I am today, someone who doesn’t buy into propaganda or nationalism and who only practices tribalism when it’s associated with the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Blackhawks.

Rating: 7.75/10

Film Review: Cobra (1986)

Release Date: May 23rd, 1986
Directed by: George P. Cosmatos
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Based on: Fair Game by Paula Gosling
Music by: Sylvester Levay
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen, Reni Santoni, Brian Thompson, Andrew Robinson

Cannon Films, Warner Bros., 87 Minutes

cobraReview:

I was once asked what my favorite Punisher movie was. My answer was Cobra.

No, Cobra isn’t actually a Punisher movie but it is the closest thing that I think Hollywood has gotten to a live-action version of him. Cobra is a balls out, unapologetic, bad ass, gratuitously violent, one-liner bonanza of an action film.

I mean, Stallone’s Cobra actually says, right before he knifes and blasts a guy, “You’re a disease – and I’m the cure.” When challenged about the broken justice system by a serial killer, Cobra says, “This is where the law stops and I start – sucker!” The film even starts with a fantastic narration by Cobra, “In America, there’s a burglary every 11 seconds, an armed robbery every 65 seconds, a violent crime every 25 seconds, a murder every 24 minutes and 250 rapes a day.” There is just that stone cold Stallone delivery of every line of Cobra’s dialogue in this movie.

From the standpoint of the critics in 1986, the film is too cliche and relies too heavily on tropes weaved together with bad dialogue. But these are the same assholes that loved Avatar.

No, Cobra is not a critically-acclaimed motion picture. But it made a shit ton of money at the box office and really, should have had a sequel or five. Just because critics don’t like something, doesn’t mean that there isn’t something for the world to sink its teeth into. Besides, the critics hated a lot of things that became classics and then they later backtracked and tried to act like they were now accepting of many of those films. Granted, they’ll probably never like Cobra, its balls are too huge and covered in thick masculine hair.

Cobra is just a manly fucking film. It is the epitome of violent 80s action movies. It does just about everything right, if senseless violence and bad asses triumphing over psychos is your thing. It is my thing.

Stallone was great as Cobra, even though he was one-dimensional and not that interesting or dynamic. He was Stallone playing Stallone but with extra octane. Brigitte Nielsen was passable as the girl he is protecting from the psycho. Speaking of which, Brian Thompson was perfect as the serial killer, the Night Slasher. And to be honest, as a kid, I was never afraid of Freddy or Jason. But I was scared shitless of the Night Slasher.

This movie is dark; it plays more like a horror film in some scenes. It is that darkness, however, that makes this movie really cool. Yeah, it really frightened me when I was a young kid, who probably shouldn’t have been able to rent this, but that is what I loved about it. And even though it is a mid-80s testosterone-laced action picture, it holds up really well.

This came out when overusing tropes was frowned upon by serious filmgoers. If this came out today, it would probably be applauded as a great homage to that old action style. I mean, the critics would still probably hate it but there’d be a lot more people accepting of it. And I think that is due to the fact that films like this don’t really exist anymore.

Cobra is just a seriously bad ass movie. Its not a great movie, from an artistic standpoint, but it is great at giving the men of my generation something to pump their fists to.

Film Review: Red Sonja (1985)

Release Date: July 3rd, 1985
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Written by: Clive Exton, George MacDonald Fraser
Based on: Red Sonya by Robert E. Howard, Red Sonja by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Brigitte Nielsen, Sandahl Bergman, Paul Smith, Ronald Lacey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ernie Reyes Jr., Pat Roach

Dino De Laurentiis Company, MGM/UA Entertainment Company, 89 Minutes

red_sonjaReview:

Arnold Schwarzenegger once referred to this film as the worst of his career. He’s wrong. In fact, I can name many of his films that are worse than this picture and if you don’t think that Jingle All the Way isn’t a complete abomination, than you have no taste.

Is this as good as Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian? Well, no. It is, however, better than the lackluster Conan the Destroyer.

Red Sonja introduced the world to the talent of Brigitte Nielsen. Now that isn’t too exciting but she had a very short run of appearances in mid-80s action films. She went on to be featured in Rocky IV, Beverly Hills Cop II and the often panned Cobra. I like friggin’ love Cobra.

This film also featured little martial arts bad ass Ernie Reyes Jr. who is most famous for playing Keno in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, as well as starring in Surf Ninjas and having smaller roles in Rush Hour 2, The Rundown and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Ronald Lacey, who most famously played the evil Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, shows up to play the evil queen’s top henchman. The evil queen is played by Sandahl Bergman, who was Conan’s love interest in Conan the Barbarian.

The cast was good enough, the film was straightforward and most importantly, it was action-packed. This film follows the well-established sword and sorcery genre pretty solidly. It felt like an extension of the Conan world and its mythos, which was already well-known at the time this came out.

Red Sonja is often times trashed. I don’t see why though. People don’t watch these movies for acting prowess or to be pristine works of art. Films like these are made to be fun escapism and this one does a great job of that. It runs short at around 90 minutes and that is the perfect amount of time to jump in, like a few characters and enjoy the sweet battles and even sweeter decapitations. Yes, this film has some sweet decapitations.

The effects are decent for the mid-80s and the sets are pretty well-made. Also, they somehow got the legendary Ennio Morricone to score this picture. There really isn’t a lot to dislike about Red Sonja unless you go into it expecting The Return of the King.

Is this movie a great fantasy epic? Not really. What it is though, is a shit load of fun. And it has sweet decapitations. And Arnold.