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: Over the Top (1987)

Also known as: Meet Me Half Way (alternate title)
Release Date: February 12th, 1987 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Menahem Golan
Written by: Stirling Silliphant, Sylvester Stallone, Gary Conway, David Engelbach
Music by: Giorgio Moroder
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Robert Loggia, Susan Blakely, David Mendenhall, Rick Zumwalt, Terry Funk

Warner Bros., The Cannon Group Inc., 93 Minutes

Review:

“The world meets nobody halfway. When you want something, you gotta take it.” – Lincoln Hawk

Over the Top is one of Stallone’s worst films of the ’80s. Still, it’s amusing, enjoyable and has its heart in the right place.

So 11 years after he was a boxer in Rocky and 9 years after he was a wrestling manager in Paradise Alley, Sly moved into the next realm of badass masculine sports: arm wrestling.

Here, Stallone is a trucker/arm wrestler named Lincoln Hawk. The film starts with him going to a military school to pick up his son. His son doesn’t know him but Hawk was asked by the boy’s dying mother to pick him up and drive him home to be by her side before she passes on. Even though Hawk’s ex-wife hasn’t given his letters to his son, on her deathbed she realizes that it’s important for her son to connect with his estranged father. The relationship is rocky at first but eventually the two bond over driving big rigs and arm wrestling.

Robert Loggia is also in this as a sort of foil for Stallone but he really just cares about the well being of the child, his grandson.

This was a Cannon Film and was directed by Menahem Golan of the famous Golan-Globus duo. Stallone was given a hefty paycheck by Cannon to star in this film. He also got to rework the script and story to fit his style and personality.

Unlike Sly’s other manly sports movies, this one is pretty uneventful and slow. It’s like a poorer version of Rocky IV, where the story is very skeletal, the film is short and rushed from a narrative standpoint and then the last third is just the big final sporting event drawn out for a half hour.

The final act is full of insane overacting, bulging muscles, gallons of man sweat and a blaring soundtrack. But it’s ’80s action cheese perfection. Arm wrestling has never been as intense as it is in this motion picture. Hell, Stallone could’ve made a chess movie in the mid-’80s and it would’ve been a testosterone festival full of dudes dripping and screaming.

Despite it’s flaws, this is still a movie that I have to fire up once in awhile. Stallone is always watchable, especially during the decade that was the peak of his career. Plus, all Cannon Films have something great about them. Golan and Globus just knew how to make movies that men (and boys in the ’80s) wanted to see.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: Other Cannon Films action movies and mid-’80s Stallone pictures

Film Review: Demolition Man (1993)

Release Date: October 7th, 1993 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Marco Brambilla
Written by: Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau, Peter M. Lenkov
Music by: Elliot Goldenthal
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthrone, Benjamin Bratt, Denis Leary, Bill Cobbs, Glenn Shadix, David Patrick Kelly, Jack Black, Jesse Ventura, Rob Schneider (uncredited), Adrienne Barbeau (voice)

Silver Pictures, Warner Bros., 115 Minutes

Review:

“We’re police officers! We’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!” – Erwin

I remember liking Demolition Man a lot but I haven’t watched it since its theater run in 1993. Really though, I never had much urge to revisit it, even though, on paper, it should certainly be my cup of tea and because it stars Stallone and Snipes.

It’s just not a very good movie. Where it works it works well but 75 percent of it is pretty weak and dull.

I do love the action but there isn’t enough of it. There is just too much filler and too many gags in this. It’s really a comedy with some action even though it’s not technically labeled a comedy.

The premise sees a cop and a criminal from the future of 1996 (keep in mind this came out in 1993, not far from 1996) get cryogenically frozen only to wake up in the 2030s. The film then uses almost every breath to poke fun at stupid mutton head Stallone because he’s from a time of testosterone Neanderthals and a total fish out of water in a bullshit utopia where people wipe their asses with sea shells and have sex without physical contact. Some of the bits are funny but the film just beats this shtick over your head at every possible turn. It’s amusing for the first fifteen minutes but then it’s like, “Okaaay! I fucking get it! Move on!”

The best thing about this picture is that it pits Stallone against Snipes. Stallone was already a megastar and in 1993, Snipes was just on the cusp. And frankly, this really helped to give Snipes some serious credibility just because he got to face off with the great Stallone.

Additionally, Sandra Bullock was virtually unknown when she was in this and it is probably the role that opened doors for her. A year later, she was in Speed and then a year after that she starred in The Net.

This movie really didn’t need to be 115 minutes. It should have been more like 95 with twenty minutes of the filler and redundant humor left on the cutting room floor. It would have then had a better balance between the action and the story. It also could have whittled down on the number of characters.

Also, for an R rated film, other than a glimpse of nice boobies, this felt like it was PG-13. This would have been a much better film if someone like Paul Verhoeven directed it, as he could have brought that original Robocop or Total Recall tone to it. This felt like it wanted to be similar to the tone of those movies but it was more like The Running Man but with extra layers of cheese.

Still, this is an entertaining movie. It just isn’t great, isn’t a classic and hasn’t aged very well.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: Stallone’s version of Judge Dredd. Also The Running Man and Robocop 3, which is a terrible movie but also deals with a faux utopian future with poor people living under the streets.

Film Review: Nighthawks (1981)

Also known as: Attacks, Hawks (working titles)
Release Date: April 10th, 1981
Directed by: Bruce Malmuth
Written by: David Shaber, Paul Sylbert
Music by: Keith Emerson
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams, Rutger Hauer, Joe Spinell, Lindsay Wagner, Nigel Davenport, Persis Khambatta

Martin Poll Productions, The Production Company, Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, DaSilva! Come off this cop on the beat mentality! Your wife left you for it! Wasn’t that enough!” – Peter Hartman

I wish I would have found this movie when I was younger in the ’80s but it eluded me until I saw it on television in the late ’90s. I liked it for its roughness and for the fact that Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer where in a movie together. However, discovering it in my late teen years allowed me to not fall victim to the nostalgia bug.

Still, I really like this movie for what it is. It’s a no frills, straight up, badass cop hunting a badass psycho movie. It benefits from the urban grittiness, its testosterone heavy stars and Stallone’s friggin’ beard!

In the film, Stallone and Williams are cops. They deal with the scum of the Earth and have to do some serious dirt in an effort to keep the streets clean. They are then recruited into an anti-terror task force by their superior, played by Stallone’s buddy Joe Spinell, and a British terror expert, played by Nigel Davenport. Their purpose is to track down international terrorist “Wulfgar”, played by Rutger Hauer.

The film isn’t exceptional and the plot isn’t unique or surprising in any way. It plays like a standard angry cop hunting mad man picture but I do get pulled into the film’s visual aesthetic. There’s nothing unusual or unique about the visual style, it is actually pretty pedestrian, but the urban nighttime scenes just have this sort of majestic allure about them. The nightclub scene is especially enthralling. Granted, I feel like all of this was unintentional and it was the locations that just came alive on their own without any extra flourish. It felt magical in the same way The Warriors does regardless of that film’s unique fashion sense.

Nighthawks is a raw and intense film. Plus, seeing Stallone face-off with Hauer with Williams thrown into the mix is exciting stuff for anyone who grew up loving these guys throughout the ’80s. And again… Stallone’s friggin’ beard, man!

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Stallone’s Cobra and Schwarzenegger’s Red Heat. If you want to see more of Hauer in a similar type of role, check out Blade Runner and The Hitcher.

Film Review: Creed (2015)

Release Date: November 19th, 2015 (Regency Village Theater)
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Based on: characters by Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Ludwig Göransson
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Bellew

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New Line Cinema, Warner Bros., 133 Minutes

Review:

“Time takes everybody out; time’s undefeated.” – Rocky Balboa

*written in 2015.

I was highly skeptical about Creed when I first heard about it. It is a spinoff/sequel to the fantastic Rocky franchise, picking up a few years after its sixth installment, Rocky Balboa. This film follows the son of former Rocky Balboa rival and best friend, Apollo Creed. The young Creed searches out Balboa in an effort to convince him to be his boxing trainer.

My skepticism subsided when I saw this film’s score on Rotten Tomatoes and read a lot of the reviews on the web, most of which were very positive. It also reunites its star Michael B. Jordan with his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler.

I really enjoyed this movie. Out of the Rocky sequels, it is certainly in the upper echelon. It captures the energy and spirit of what worked in the original film and works as sort of a remake, even though it is a sequel. This time, Adonis Johnson, the young Creed, is in the role of Rocky Balboa and Rocky is in the role of his trainer, Mickey Goldmill.

Adonis faces adversity and has the need to prove himself, similar to Rocky in the original. Except Adonis’ story is much different. Those differences aside, it is a familiar tale that treads familiar territory. But Adonis’ journey is unique and its hard not to get caught up in the emotion of it all, especially if you’ve been watching Rocky movies your entire life.

The film also adds more to the Rocky legend, as it shows where Balboa is after the events of the last film in his series.

Creed also pulls at the heartstrings for those who have had a forty year or so investment in the character of Balboa. He has his own fight for his own survival in the movie and he also finds a sense of belonging and family after he has lost his wife, his two best friends, his mentor and his son, who moved to Vancouver – far away from his dad and the issues of being the son of a local legend.

The relationship between Adonis and Rocky is heartwarming, heartbreaking and a beautiful thing to witness. Rocky films have always been full of emotion and self discovery and Creed lives up to those earlier movies.

I don’t want to give too much away but if you are a fan of the Rocky film series, this is a must-see. You won’t be disappointed and it reignites some serious nostalgia.

But again, this is Adonis’ film. That being said, I hope we get to see what happens after the credits role. Adonis Johnson becomes Adonis Creed and, as a character, he deserves to stand proudly next to the icons: Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Anything within the Rocky franchise. Also, Ryan Coogler’s other films with Michael B. Jordan.

Film Review: Rocky Balboa (2006)

Release Date: December 20th, 2006
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Bill Conti
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Milo Ventimiglia, Geraldine Hughes, Tony Burton, James Francis Kelly III, Lou DiBella

Revolution Studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures, 100 Minutes

Review:

“It doesn’t matter how this looks to other people. If this is something you gotta do, then you do it. Fighters fight.” – Little Marie

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Rocky Balboa. I really liked it when it came out but at the same time, I was going through some heavy personal shit that this film emotionally tapped into at the time. I lost someone really close to me the day before this film came out and in some way, seeing this film that same week sort of helped me with the grief and guilt of that experience. And frankly, I’ll always associate this film with that experience.

Seeing it, over a decade later, and after having just watched the five original Rocky films, I do still like this picture but it is my least favorite of the Rocky franchise. Yeah, I’m that one weirdo that actually liked Rocky V and was happy with it as the ending to the series.

The thing about this film, is that I think it actually would have worked better without the whole fight element thrown in. But it’s a Rocky film so Rocky has to fight, I guess that’s the rule. I would have been more interested in seeing Rocky deal with his grief in an elderly reality where he can’t fight and certainly shouldn’t be allowed to fight. Eventually, he has to hang those gloves up and I would have rather seen him try to figure out how to overcome his personal demons when his one way of dealing with them is no longer available to him. There are different fights in life than the physical ones and we’ve seen Rocky use boxing as a metaphor for his life from the ’70s into the ’90s. I think that Creed did a better job of finding a way to help Rocky find meaning in his life outside of taping up his own fists.

The thing with the fight and how it all goes down is unrealistic. I just can’t see a boxer as old as Balboa getting cleared to fight the undefeated world champion, whether it’s just some corny exhibition or not. The idea of it also sets a bad precedent of some sort of reality where aged fighters can somehow hang with guys in their prime that are at the top of their game. Sure, this is a feel good story for old men, past their prime, but Sugar Ray Leonard should absolutely never step into the ring with Floyd Mayweather.

Everything else about this film I mostly liked. Rocky owns a restaurant, he is having a hard time with his relationship with his son, he gets to spend quality time with Paulie and he gets to reconnect with a young girl he hasn’t seen since 1976. I also loved Spider Rico’s role in this movie, as he was there for comedic relief but it was cool seeing Rocky still care for his old rival and friend.

Rocky Balboa is a sad and borderline depressing movie. It does have its patented feel good ending but it was unsatisfying in the fact that it was tied into the fight within the film. I would have rather seen him reconnect with his son, find love with Marie and accept that life goes on and he has to go on with it. While it sort of happens, it does so with the fight as a metaphor for everything because surviving a beat down of epic proportions means that your problems are gone until you need to make a sequel.

But I get it, what’s a Rocky movie without a fight? And if Stallone didn’t have his most famous character throw down, people wouldn’t have gone to see the film. What is Rocky Balboa without boxing? But couldn’t that have been the whole point of the film?

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Anything within the Rocky franchise. Also, Ryan Coogler’s Creed.

Film Review: Death Race 2000 (1975)

Also known as: Frankensteins Todesrennen (Austria)
Release Date: April 27th, 1975
Directed by: Paul Bartel
Written by: Robert Thom, Charles Griffith
Based on: The Racer by Ib Melchior
Music by: Paul Chihara
Cast: David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone, Sand McCallum, Louisa Moritz, Don Steele, Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins, Martin Kove, Joyce Jameson, Paul Bartel, Leslie McRae

New World Pictures, 80 Minutes

Review:

“As the cars roar into Pennsylvania, the cradle of liberty, it seems apparent that our citizens are staying off the streets, which may make scoring particularly difficult, even with this year’s rule changes. To recap those revisions: women are still worth 10 points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under 12 now rate a big 70 points. The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.” – Harold

When Roger Corman stepped away from directing to start New World Pictures, it really opened the door for young filmmakers to usher in a new era of outside-the-box indie pictures. Paul Bartel was one of the premier guys to come out of the Corman camp and while he made a few really good films, none of them had as big of an impact on me as the super stylish and insane Death Race 2000.

The film is about a transcontinental race from New York City to Los Angeles, a race where the drivers earn points for killing human targets. The more offensive the target, the higher the points. So babies and old people are prime meat for the sadistic drivers and their high octane killing machines.

The movie takes place in a not-too-distant future where society has kind of evolved similar to those more modern Purge movies. America is a fascist state and this grand motor race is patriotic. Those who die, as victims of the drivers, are considered heroes and their sacrifices usually come with rewards for their loved ones.

Within this severely screwed up America is a group of rebels who are trying to end the race and overthrow the sick and twisted president in an effort to reestablish an America that is closer to what the Founding Fathers fought for. There is a lot of political and social commentary sprinkled in throughout the film and it almost exists as a response to the American government’s expansion into the world and its quest for occupation and control. It makes sense that this was made at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

The film stars David Carradine as Frankenstein, the most elite of all the racers. He is a literal living legend but he has his own ideas on the race and his government’s politics, which play out subtly as the film progresses, leading to a big rebellious crescendo at the end.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by a very young Sylvester Stallone, who was a year away from Rocky fame, as well as Paul Bartel’s favorite collaborator, Mary Woronov. We also get Roberta Collins, who spent a large part of her career in exploitation films, a young Martin Kove, a decade before becoming the iconic John Kreese from The Karate Kid films, Joyce Jameson, who was a part of a lot of Corman’s ’60s horror productions, Don Steele, a charismatic and over the top shock jock from the ’70s, as well as two beautiful ladies: Simone Griffeth and Louisa Moritz, both of whom play navigators to the two top drivers. Paul Bartel even has a small cameo as Frankenstein’s doctor when the iconic racer is first introduced in the film.

One thing that makes this picture work so well, is that it is a tongue in cheek critique on the government and society but it doesn’t beat you over the head because of how ridiculous and stylized everything in the film is. Every character is more or less a caricature, every car has some sort of bizarre and hokey gimmick and things are so over the top and goofy that you don’t find yourself buried in serious subject matter. And maybe the political statements are sort of lost in this circus of a film but the sentiment seems pretty clear, even if it’s not fine tuned enough to be specific.

Bartel would follow this up with another action car picture for Roger Corman called Cannonball. That one also starred David Carradine and is enjoyable but it doesn’t stick out in quite the same way Death Race 2000 does.

This would also spawn a horrible remake that had even worse sequels. Eventually, a true sequel to this was made called Death Race 2050. I haven’t seen that one yet but I plan to give it a watch in the very near future.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Any Paul Bartel directed film but most notable Cannonball!