“Creed II” is without question one of the most surprising films of 2018. This engaging love story set in a boxing background will leave many of you wiping away tears at its powerful ending.
Its plot deals with heavyweight boxing champion Adonis Creed being challenged by a towering Ukrainian boxer named Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu). Adonis’ father was killed in the ring years earlier by Ivan Drago, Viktor’s father and trainer. Motivated by vengeance, both fighters quickly agree to meet in the ring.
The boxing matches are as artistic as they are violent, and the brutality will remind you of why boxing has lost its public appeal. Fortunately, the film concentrates on the boxers’ lives outside of the ring and it leads you in an unanticipated direction.
Michael B. Jordan is magnificent as Adonis Creed, a man haunted by the death of a father when he was but a young boy. But he was rescued from his morose existence by falling in love with and marrying Bianca, played glowingly by Tessa Thompson. A singer with a terrible hearing disorder, Creed’s proposal to her is one of the warmest moments you will see in any film this year. Thompson has become one of my favorite actresses, and I urge you to hunt down her performances in “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) and “Dear White People” (2014).
Jordan’s performance here continues to rocket him to the top of the Hollywood acting profession as earlier demonstrated by his roles in “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and this year’s tremendous “Black Panther.” In “Creed II,” he gives a magnetic performance as a boxer who can take a licking in the ring while retaining the ability to be driven by a warm heart as he goes home to recover. It is a moving experience to watch his interaction with his intelligent mother-in-law (Phylicia Rashad) who he has long ignored while providing emotional support for a pregnant wife as they worry if their expected child will have his mother’s hearing problem.
And while the film is enormously helped by Dolph Lundgren’s performance as Drago’s father and trainer, it is worth mentioning the small appearance of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s mother, a woman who abandoned both husband and son years earlier. Though she says little in her small appearance, it is worth remembering that she was Sylvester Stallone’s second wife.
But what elevates this film to Oscar consideration is an incredible soundtrack and Stallone’s astonishing performance. As an aging Rocky Balboa, he lives alone in Philadelphia, trying to train the young Adonis as he fights his shortcomings as a father who has long lost contact with his son and grandson. Stallone’s Balboa is fighting to hang on to some meaning in life as he acknowledges his many shortcomings even when he visits the grave of his deceased wife. Stallone has never been better in any film.
This is a movie about individuals fighting human weaknesses as they seek to make sense out of the human experience. More than an athletic contest, it tells the stirring story of average people, which includes both Drago and his father, who find a way to conquer profound disappointments as they discover the importance of love.
“Green Book,” like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is a brilliant film that suffered unjustified criticism. I continue to have a hard time accepting criticism of movies “based on a true story” simply because various moments are embellished or deleted to provide meaning and entertainment value to the entire film.
“Green Book” tells the story of Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a well-recognized African-American classic pianist who embarks on a performance schedule through the Deep South in 1962. Given that this is the era of Jim Crow, Shirley hires a white Brooklyn bouncer known as Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard. Lip is a quintessential traditional middle-class Italian surrounded by a loving family and a group of friends who personify many of the same traditional Italian values that you previously witnessed in the “Godfather” movies.
Though they begin with nothing in common, the strength of the film is Shirley and Lip’s growing friendship. Shirley is a quiet, divorced gentleman dedicated to his music and a daily bottle of Scotch. Ali has previously demonstrated his great acting strength in his Oscar-winning role in “Moonlight” (2016), the powerful “Hidden Figures” (2016) and the overlooked “Free State of Jones” (2016).
But as good as Mr. Ali is, this film belongs to Mortensen’s performance as he literally becomes Tony Lip. Gaining significant weight for his role, his character grows from a relatively unlikeable human caterpillar into a caring butterfly that you will likely find immensely captivating.
The great value of this film is additionally found in its recreation of the vast racism that dominated areas of our country less than 50 years ago. The title of this movie flows from an actual book that existed for use by black American citizens who dared to travel through the South. It told them where to stay and eat to avoid the likelihood of being brutally beaten. After all, one has only to remember that Nat King Cole was attacked by the Klu Klux Klan while performing in 1956.
Though Shirley was far more sophisticated than the pedestrian Lip, the discrimination faced by the good doctor caused his driver to emerge from his social cocoon and defend him. Their evolving friendship was reflected by moments where Shirley was warmly greeted at an auditorium where he would be playing in front of an all-white crowd only to find that he would be forced to return to his own motel miles away if he wanted to use the restroom. A similar scene occurred to one of the women working at NASA in “Hidden Figures.”
Most of you will embrace the social relevance of this film that will leave you wiping away a tear as you smile with joy at its warm ending. However, the movie’s racial import left a reminder that the bigotry haunting much of the South decades ago is alive and well today.
I inadvertently discovered the nature of southern racism in the early 1980s when I attended an Indiana University basketball game in New Orleans in late December. As I drove my Volkswagen convertible to Key West to experience New Year’s Eve, I kept stopping at various exits as I drove through Mississippi and Alabama as I tried to find a place to buy a beer.
Unfortunately, every time I pulled off the highway the tavern displayed a sign saying “For Members Only.” When this happened a third time, I decided to go in and see if I could persuade them to wait on me. When I walked in and explained my problem, the bartender began laughing as he informed me “Listen, buddy, don’t you know that you are already a member?” That moment functioned as my own edition of a white man’s Green Book.
Though this wonderful film has begun slowly at the box office, it is showing some momentum in much the same fashion as “The Greatest Showman” did last December. Hopefully it will continue to find traction as it remains one of the most powerful, rewarding films of 2018.•
• Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.