‘Creed II’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

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When “Rocky Balboa” was released in 2006, many wondered how a sixth “Rocky” film would perform when the last one prior to that was released in 1990.  Sylvester Stallone himself was not all too pleased with how “Rocky V” ended, and he wanted to do right by Rocky Balboa.  Needless to say, he did so as he was the writer and the director behind it.  Because of the good will he had built up from the sixth installment, fans were excited for “Creed,” which was released in 2015 and directed by Ryan Coogler.

Coogler was coming off the success of “Fruitvale Station,” and it was set to star Michael B. Jordan, also from the aforementioned film. It was in good hands, as they were wise to hand the franchise over to Jordan while still keeping Stallone around.  The film was organic, funny, entertaining, and powerful at the same time. When it was time for “Creed II,” they handed it over to Steven Caple Jr.  I’m happy to report he did a terrific job with “Creed II,” and the writers also had a fresh idea to bring to the table: bring back Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and introduce his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).  After all, everyone remembers how things ended up in “Rocky IV” between Drago and Apollo Creed.

When the film gets started, everything seems to be going well for Adonis Creed.  He wins the World Heavyweight Championship, proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he also has a baby on the way.  His world, however, gets turned upside down when Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, challenges him.  This is the same Ivan Drago who killed his father back in 1985.  Rocky tries to tell him to stay away from the fight and that he is fighting for the wrong reasons.

Adonis’ pride, however gets in the way and he ends up taking on the fight, regardless, and without Rocky his corner.  His life only becomes more complicated and painful from that point forward.  Now, he needs to figure out what to do in order to get his career, his health, and his life back on track.  It won’t be easy for Adonis, but everything in his life has always been a fight.  Rocky just wants him to figure out what he’s fighting for and also realize he has other people counting on him as well.

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There is a lot to like about “Creed II.”  I’m not going to say if it is better or worse than 2015’s “Creed.”  It is just as good.  It is just different, and it is dealing with different themes and different messages.   Jordan gives a knockout (I know, easy pun) performance here.  All of his emotions are in his face, and it’s a performance with a lot of nuance and complexity attached to it.  As an audience member, you understand what he’s doing and why, even if you don’t always agree with him.

His relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca also brings a big heart to the film.  These two have tremendous chemistry together and it is a joy to watch them on screen.  Stallone has said he is walking away from the franchise after this movie, and it seems like the right move.  Make no mistake about it, Stallone’s the backbone of this franchise and he makes the most of every scene he’s in even though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.  He does a lot with a little.  I imagine this was intentionally done, as he was one of the writers on the project.

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The film deals with the complexity of a father/son relationship and how men are trying to carve out their own image and legacy.  There is a lot of meat in this script, as Adonis is becoming a father himself. Phylicia Rashad is back here once again, and she brings such fierce intensity and knowledge to her role as Mary Anne Creed.  There is not a bad performance in the film.  It’s heartwarming, intense, and very, very entertaining.

With that said, it is not a perfect film.  I would argue it is about twenty minutes too long.  As with most boxing movies, the boxing itself and the training montages are not all that interesting compared to the relationships in the film. What transpires throughout the film will not surprise anyone, but when it’s done with such warmth and commitment from the actors, it helps elevate the material into something really, really special.  While I don’t think we need a “Creed III,” I can’t say I would necessarily mind one if the right people are involved in the project.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “Creed II” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack, which also includes a digital copy, from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. The film is rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.  It has a running time of 130 minutes. It is presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The audio formats are Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, DTS MA: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1, and Español 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Fathers and Sons (07:16): This special feature talks about how “Creed II” touches on the father/son dynamic and what a big role it plays in the film and also in life.  Interviews with the cast and crew are featured as well as some famous boxers including Sugar Ray Leonard.  They even talk about the Shakespearean aspects of the story.

Casting Viktor Drago (05:43): This special feature is all about the casting of Florian Munteanu who comes from a boxing background.  Stallone wanted him in the film and saw something special in him.  Munteanu talks about how grateful he is to be in the film as he is familiar with all of the “Rocky” films.  He trained for seven months and really committed to the role, which impressed his fellow actors and the director as well.

The Women of “Creed II” (05:51): Sugar Ray Leonard appears once again, and he gives credit to the women that are alongside the boxers through all of the training and the punishment in the ring.  Director Steven Caple Jr. didn’t just want Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad to be in the background of the film.  He wanted them to get their due.  It’s a big reason why the film is as effective as it is because each and every character serves a significant purpose.

The “Rocky” Legacy (15:01): This is hosted by Dolph Lundgren, and it discusses the impact the “Rocky” franchise has had not only on boxing movies, but also on the sport itself.  They also tie it together with “Rocky IV” and “Creed II.”  The cast and crew of “Creed II” talk about the music, the boxing scenes, and why the franchise has lasted as long as it has going all the way back to 1976.

Deleted Scenes (09:46): One notable deleted scene worth mentioning is one where Rocky performs a eulogy for Spider Rico, the first fighter he ever fought in the “Rocky” films.  It’s a powerful scene and one which should have been in the film despite my issues with its length.  The other three deleted scenes include Rocky training young kids to box, Adonis and Bianca talking about his legacy, and the aftermath of the fight between Adonis and Viktor.

 

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First Trailer for ‘Creed II’ Enters the Ring

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“Creed” may not have reinvented the “Rocky” franchise, but Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan succeeded in making it feel fresh and reinvigorated to where a sequel was not only inevitable, but more than welcome. Now we have the first trailer for “Creed II” which promises a powerful follow-up as Adonis Creed faces the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV,” Viktor Drago.

In some ways this trailer is a bit anti-climatic as we have known for a while already how the son of Ivan Drago was going to Adonis’ next big opponent, and the trailer keeps building up to a reveal we can see coming from miles away. Viktor is played by Florian Munteanu who previously appeared in “Bogat.” Now we never get a clear look at his face, but when he turns around we see “DRAGO” stenciled on the back of his robe. Personally, I was hoping for a little more than just this reveal, but then again, this is a teaser trailer.

I also kept waiting for Dolph Lundgren to reappear as Ivan Drago as he is slated to be co-starring in “Creed II,” but no such luck. One of the things I am really looking forward to is seeing him come face to face with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as I wonder how each character feels about the other following their bloody bout in Russia 30 years ago. I’m guessing Brigette Nielsen will not be back as Ivan’s wife and official spokesperson, so Lundgren will obviously have more dialogue to work with than he did back in 1985.

The trailer does have a lot of cool shots of Adonis training and throwing brutal punches, and the moment where we see him practicing punches underwater is especially cool to where I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene like this in the previous “Rocky” films. Using Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” to score the trailer was a great move as it has a powerful beat which will stay with you to where downloading the song off of iTunes is a must unless you own it or the album it is on already.

But what I really liked about this “Creed II” trailer is how it reflects the challenges Adonis and Rocky face outside of the ring as opposed to in it. Both characters are still stuck in a past which will not let them be. Whether it is the guilt Rocky feels over letting Apollo die in the ring or the feeling of inadequacy which gnaws constantly at Adonis, their struggles are never limited to a boxing match. Seeing this quickly reminded me of when Rocky and Adonis were looking at themselves in a mirror in “Creed” and of Rocky telling him how he will always be his own biggest opponent. And as Rocky talks about the “cheap shots” life is constantly giving him, I was taken back to his great speech in “Rocky Balboa” in which he said the following:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Taking this into account, I believe “Creed II” looks to focus on the characters even over the intense fight sequences we can expect to see. Besides, what’s a fight like without the psychological depth? You can have great choreography, but it won’t mean as much if you are not fully invested in the characters’ plights and of what they stand to win or lose.

Directing “Creed II” is Steven Caple Jr., and the returning cast includes Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad who proves she is still a badass with her brief appearance here. The sequel is set to be released on November 21, 2018.

Please check out the trailer below.

 

Ben Younger Returns to the Director’s Chair with ‘Bleed for This’

Director Ben Younger on the set of BLEED FOR THIS.

Ben Younger made his directorial debut with “Boiler Room” in 2000, but “Bleed for This” marks his first directorial effort since “Prime,” and that film was released over a decade ago. After failing to get his Isle of Man racing movie off the ground, he withdrew for a time to Costa Rica where he became a pilot, cooked in a restaurant, and even raced professionally on motorcycles for a year. When it came to making “Bleed for This,” he originally approached it as a writing assignment and had no intention of directing it.

“Bleed for This” tells the true-life story of champion boxer Vinny Paz (played by Miles Teller) who, after winning a fight, is involved in a nasty car crash which leaves him with a broken neck. Many tell him his boxing career is over as a result, but Vinny is determined to repair the damage and get back in the ring. That he succeeded in doing so makes his comeback one of the greatest ever in sports history.

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While at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California, Younger explained what finally made him want to tell this story.

Ben Younger: Simply because of the comeback. Vinny won 50 fights, I don’t know if you guys knew that. I’m sure to real boxing aficionados that would be an exciting thing. I’m not one of them. For me, it was all about the crash and the comeback. I started this as a writing assignment. I wasn’t supposed to direct this. I didn’t think I wanted to direct it. But once I realized there was a parallel between his story and mine… You guys know I took a long time off. I didn’t make a movie for 12 years which is kind of like having a broken neck.

So yes, “Bleed for This,” like every other movie released these days, is “based on a true story.” This term has long since lost its meaning as filmmakers tend to embellish the real-life events they are portraying to where they resemble something which feels canned and artificial. Younger, however, sought to pull back from this, and his explanation led to my question regarding certain things I figured filmmakers do their best to avoid.

BY: In every other way, we had to reverse embellishment. For example, that scene with Vinny lifting the bar? That happened five days after the Halo went on in real life. I couldn’t present that because no one would believe it. Same for Ciarán Hinds’ performance of Angelo (Vinny’s father). Angelo was such a colorful character that he bordered on a caricature of an Italian-American in New England. If I showed him as he was, you would say I was racist or we would’ve made a comedy.

Ben Kenber: It’s interesting because when it comes to East Coast people, I think a lot of us have a sort of a specific view which might seem clichéd in the way they are portrayed on-screen. How did you manage to keep it to where it felt like the actors and the accents felt natural and not clichéd?

BY: That was a fear. Boxing wise, there are so many clichés. Those I was like, we are going to avoid those, those are easier to avoid. But this is tougher because the actual accents can in themselves sound caricature like. So, we had a great dialect coach, Tom Jones (not the singer), a really talented guy, and we prayed and we were just careful and we really listened. I wasn’t looking at the monitors. I just stood next to the camera and just stared. You know when someone’s full of shit and when they’re someone they’re not, and you just can tell when they are getting it. Even if you don’t know the world, there’s just something if you really pay attention.

One thing which astonished me about “Bleed for This” was how several of the actors were unrecognizable in their roles. This is especially the case with Aaron Eckhart who plays Vinny’s coach Kevin Rooney, Ted Levine who plays boxing promoter Lou Duva, and Katey Sagal who portrays Vinny’s mother, Louise. One person even told me he didn’t realize it was Sagal in the role until her name came up during the end credits. I brought this up to Younger, and he responded with the following.

BY: That’s the nicest compliment you can pay an actor. They really want to disappear (into their roles). That’s more them than me, but thank you.

Another highlight of this interview was when Younger was asked which movie inspired him to become a filmmaker. His answer was not at all what anyone could have expected.

BY: No one’s ever asked me this question strangely, and I’ve been avoiding it for 16 years because I have to tell the truth. It is Steven Seagal’s “Above the Law.” It was his first movie, I was 16 years old, I cut school. I was going to a Yeshiva, like a Jewish seminary school, and I cut and I went and saw it. It was the first time I realized that someone made movies and that there were people behind it and some thought had gone into it. It was mostly that opening. There’s archival footage in the first 30 seconds. It’s footage of Seagal as a 19 or 20-year-old studying martial arts in the Far East cut together with the narrative they were doing which was about him being a CIA operative. The movie holds up. I see it probably once a year and it’s completely watchable.

Truth be told, Younger is correct. “Above the Law” featured Seagal in his prime, and it does still hold up. Some might see the movie as a guilty pleasure, but it really is not. It was also directed by Andrew Davis who would later direct Seagal in his biggest hit, “Under Siege,” and gave us the excellent cinematic adaptation of “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. Everything Seagal did following “Under Siege” has proven to be pretty much abysmal.

It’s great to see Younger directing again, and he ended his time by saying he finally got the financing for his Isle of Man movie which is now heading into pre-production. Odds are we will not have to wait 15 years for it to reach the silver screen.

Bleed for This” is now playing in theaters. Whether you are a boxing fan or not, it is definitely worth checking out.

Miles Teller talks about Boxer Training and Wearing the Halo in ‘Bleed for This’

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Jake Gyllenhaal played one in “Southpaw,” Michael B. Jordan portrayed another in “Creed,” and now Miles Teller gets to put on his own set of gloves to play a boxer in “Bleed for This.” The biographical drama, directed by Ben Younger, focuses on Vinny Paz, a champion boxer from Rhode Island who became Super Middleweight champion of the world after defeating Gilbert Dele in the ring. Paz’s victory, however, is short-lived when he gets seriously injured in a nasty car accident. With his neck broken, his boxing career is assumed to be over by everyone, but he became determined to regain his title through a brutal rehabilitation regimen, and this led to one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.

Teller recently sat down for an interview and talked at length about how he trained and prepared to play Paz in “Bleed for This.” He also discussed what it was like to wear the halo Paz opted to wear in an effort to repair his neck. The boxer’s doctors initially encouraged him to undergo spinal fusion which would have ensured his ability to walk again but also would have erased any chance of him getting back into the ring. Paz chose the halo instead, and it involved having a number of screws drilled into his head in order to ensure this apparatus would keep it in one place for months.

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Question: Did growing up in South Jersey help you with your accent?

Miles Teller: The Jersey accent is different. It’s just impossible to sound intelligent honestly, especially in South Jersey. The Northwest is just a specific kind of energy and people, and even though Rhode Island is totally different from New Jersey… I’ve just been around those guys, so I think it probably added something to the kind of relation that I found to Vinny.

Q: What was the most difficult thing that Vinny had as a person for you to get for the movie?

MT: The physicality was very tough. To get that look for me to just be able to have the conditioning to be able to shoot a boxing fight for a 16-hour day. The last two fights were back-to-back days. Each fight took one day which is unheard of. We shot the movie in 24 days. To even just look like a boxer… I had to shoot two movies in between, but that was eight months of just a very strict diet and working out. I lost 20 pounds and got down to 6% body fat for the first fight, but Vinny also moved up in weight and won the title of Lightweight and Super Middleweight, and we showed that. That’s also something very unique and special to Vinny’s legacy. He and Roberto Durán were the only two guys to win titles in those two weight classes specifically. So, I started at 160 and then I had to gain 15 pounds to get to 183 in like 2 ½ weeks. But once I had to gain weight, that was fun. It was just like Dunkin Donuts in Federal Hill. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Providence, but Federal Hill has amazing Italian food.

Q: But while you were eating a lot, you still had to be boxing.

MT: I got cast two and a half years ago. We filmed it two years ago. This was pre- “Whiplash.” I had never done anything like this where I just got to play like a man or a world champion boxer. Even when I was on set, if I had any time in between I was always doing something like push-ups or sit-ups because I knew I didn’t walk into this movie with this God-given talent of being in shape. They tell you just get a workout and diet, but I think I went anti that early in my career because I was just like, I don’t want to be that guy with the six pack and a tan who’s worried about his makeup and stuff.

Q: Did doing this movie help you to appreciate the nuances of boxing, or is that something you already had as a sports fan?

MT: I was a big MMA fan and I still am, but I started watching it when it was the WCE when I was in high school; I was 16 years old. And then with boxing, I always played the video games and I always watch certain guys like Tyson and Holyfield and Lennox Lewis; the heavyweights back then were the big draws. But once you start training in it, you realize it is very highly nuanced. I don’t see it as two guys in a blood sport. I see it as technique.

Q: The mind is very important to being a champion boxer? Strategy?

MT: Yeah, for sure, but that’s what they say: you have a game plan until you get hit in the face, and then it all goes away. We didn’t have a ton of time. I only had about five weeks in Los Angeles with my boxing trainer, and he was Sugar Ray Leonard’s trainer for 18 years. He was just a very high-level guy. The first fight in the movie against Roger Mayweather, I had five days to work with that boxer. The second boxer, we had a day and a half. And the third boxer, this dude Edmund Rodriguez, got in a fight, professionally, that he wasn’t supposed to. He told Ben (Younger, the director) he wasn’t going to fight, got in a fight, luckily knocked the dude out, didn’t get messed up, flew down, and I honestly only had maybe like a day with him.

Q: You also had to wear the halo in this movie. What was it like reading about that in the script and then wearing it for however long?

MT: For the beginning physical transformation, it was eight months of all that stuff that you hear. You can’t eat any bread or drink for that time. You’re just eating like a rabbit and hoping it all pays off. This guy dedicated like everything in his life to this, so it would’ve been very immature of me to slack off and mess with that. As far as the halo goes, that was highly uncomfortable. Again, you don’t like to complain because, for Vinny, it was screwed in his head. But for me, it wasn’t actually screwed in my head so we really had to make it as tight as possible because if the thing moves at all, then it doesn’t matter what you just did in that take. You only get so many takes, but it’s not usable because when it moves, people understand it’s not real. If this was like a big-budget studio film, I would have had a ton of fittings with it. I just did a firefighter movie and I had more fittings with my boots than I did for this thing. The girl just went to a hospital in Providence and got one from them, and then we put little rubber pieces on the end and just put it so far up my head that I could tell when it was in the right spot because I just had indentations on my head.

“Bleed for This” opens in theaters on Friday, November 18th.