Creed II And The Perils of A Too Sympathetic Antagonist

Spoilers for Rocky III & IV, Journeyman (2017), Southpaw (2015), Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018)


When we talk about equality or diversification, we generally use said phrases in reference to aspects such as the job market, politics, criminal justice, etc. The big picture areas so to speak. However, it’s a shame that we don’t make the same effort to diversify our sportsmen and women. Specifically I speak mainly of class differences (though I won’t deny there are racial and gender issues as well).

Take the sport of golf for instance. While there are a few golfers that have come from poorer environments (such as Vijay Singh or Lee Trevino); the large majority are individuals who were raised in middle to upper class backgrounds.

The reason for this is quite simple: The higher the financial investment needed to train, the more affluent the sportsperson has to be. So if we were to take a look at sports such as tennis, polo, sailing or dressage (which apparently is a sport!); it’s easy to see why a healthy bank account is generally necessary for beginners.

On the flip side of this are the sports for the disadvantaged and the poor. The sports that don’t require massive amounts of upfront investment. Football, basketball, wrestling, and of course, boxing are all the usual suspects. But, at least in popular culture, it’s not too far off the mark to say that boxing is the epitome of “coming from nothing.”

The Rocky series, The Fighter (2010), Cinderella Man (2005) and many, many more have taken the “rags to riches” storytelling path. While it’s true we occasionally get a movie about a boxer at the top of his game, the story will often find a way to bring the character back down to his (metaphorical) knees. For example, Journeyman (2017) had Paddy Considine’s character suffer a serious head injury; while Jake Gyllenhaal’s Southpaw (2015) had him lose both his wife and child.

While the Rocky series has illustrated this underdog aspect to various degrees over six movies (and a semi-reboot in 2015’s Creed); the most recent entry in the series, Creed II, seems to have somewhat done an about-turn. Rather than the elevation of the underprivileged, Creed II is instead about the domination of the rich and how they deserve to stay in power or at the top of their sport.

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© 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

2015’s Creed is quite obviously a tale of the little guy. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), who has spent much of his childhood in youth detention centres, needs to make something of himself and wants to prove to the world that he is just as good as his father, Apollo (Carl Weathers). And even though Adonis fails to win against his opponent, Ricky Colan (Anthony Bellew); the announcer in the film makes it clear that “Conlan won the fight, but Creed won the night.”

Three years later however, Creed II starts with Adonis at the top of his game, having just won the World Heavyweight Championship. He is clearly a famed and wealthy man, able to easily purchase an expensive living space in Los Angeles. As such Creed II needs to topple the tower of Adonis in order to build him back up again; and this is capably illustrated by his first loss to Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu).

This, by itself, isn’t that unusual of a storytelling technique. After all, the exact same thing happens in Rocky III when Rocky has to take on Clubber Lang (Mr. T). The problem is that Viktor and his father, Ivan (a returning Dolph Lundgren) are presented to us as clear underdogs with absolutely nothing to their name. Not only has the family name taken a dive after the events of Rocky IV; but wider Russian society has shunned them to such an extent that the family’s matriarch, Ludmila (Brigitte Nielsen), has abandoned them.

Because of such a drastic fall from grace, it’s totally understandable that Viktor and Ivan would want to take on Adonis and Rocky. Not only would such a fight earn them enough money to move out of their dilapidated home; but it would increase theirs chances of being accepted by their neighbours, their country, and perhaps even allow Viktor to rekindle a relationship with his mother.

In what world are these bad people? In what world could this duo be considered antagonists? Sure, the film tries to make Viktor seem “bad” when he cheats in the first fight against Adonis. But you know what? If my mother’s love for me was entirely dependent on winning a boxing match, I sure as hell would be cheating left, right and centre to make sure I win! In other words, Viktor is just too damn sympathetic to stand as an effective antagonist.

Don’t get me wrong, lots of movies have sympathetic antagonists. In fact, to be a truly great movie, an antagonist usually has to be sympathetic because we as an audience must understand why they commit terrible acts to achieve their goals. Magneto in the X-men movies or Koba from the Planet of the Apes franchise are grand examples of sympathetic antagonists that you understand, but would never support because the crimes they commit (murder and attempted genocide) are so beyond the pale.

But Viktor? What crime has he committed? What dreadful sin is he guilty of? He was born into a world that, pretty much from birth, identified him as the son of a failure; and by association he was a failure too. How can we, as human beings, not identify with that? Haven’t we all felt like failures and outcasts at some point in our lives? Are we not all Viktor?

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© 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It is amazing that Creed II, the eighth installment in the Rocky franchise, fails in such a spectacular fashion. For lack of a better description, Adonis has become the undeserving and prideful rich boy that traditionally would be the antagonist. It ends up being impossible to emphasise with him. Even worse is that Adonis never truly has any good reason to go through with the fight with Viktor. He clearly doesn’t need the money and he already has the fame and prestige. Even if he were to lose the fight (as Ivan did 30 years earlier), Adonis won’t lose his partner (Tessa Thompson), his home, or the respect of his friends and country.

That’s why the final fight is so heartbreaking. On one side we have a wealthy man who won’t give up because of his pride; while on the other we have poverty-stricken and emotionally hurt person trying to make something of himself. And who loses? The poor guy! All of the above could have been acceptable if Viktor had won. But no. The film ends with the rich prideful man remaining rich and prideful (and celebrated for it!); while the downtrodden individual is forced back to the shithole from whence he came.

For a film series that’s meant to inspire hope, Creed II instead enforces the idea that the browbeaten and the oppressed deserve nothing better. That those who struggle the most have no right to improve themselves at the expense of their “betters.”

And if that isn’t a metaphor for 2018, I don’t know what is.

 

 

Review: The Short Game (2013) – A Look at The Little People of Golf

How much had you achieved by the time you were seven years old?

Maybe you successfully learned some of the easier times-tables? Or managed to ride your bike without training wheels? Or maybe you once scored a goal from the half-way line and invoked the admiration of the playground?

Well, some of the golf-loving kids in this film have won over 100 competitions and are ranked as some of the best child golf players in the world.

Feel inadequate yet?

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Starting about six months before the beginning of the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship, The Short Game follows eight 7 year old kids from five countries around the world.

Their goal? To take their years of training and reach the culmination of their (lifelong?) journey to become crowned the best golfer in the world.

Rivaling only cricket as one of the world’s most boring sports, golf is not an activity that I would ever find myself playing or watching. And yet, director Josh Greenbaum (in his debut feature film) finds a new angle by showing us this world through the eyes of our children.

Interestingly, the film is far more diverse than you might expect as, of its eight colourful characters, it chooses to only follow one American male: Allan Kournikova, the half-brother of tennis champion Anna Kournikova.

Elsewhere from America we meet: Alexa Pano, from the sunny state of Florida; Sky Sudberry, the fluffy-rabbit owning girl from Texas; and Amari Avery, the Tiger Woods loving player that has earned the nickname “Tigeress.”

And from around the world we get to see the struggles of Yang Kuang (China), Zamokuhle Nxasana (South Africa), Jed Dy (Phillipines) and Augustin Valery (France).

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Refreshingly, the film isn’t actually about pushy parents trying to force their children into the limelight. Instead most of the drive seems to arise from the children’s pure passion for the sport. What exactly they see in it, I have no idea. But the zeal they all possess is admirable.

If anything, there are moments where it completely escapes your mind that it is in fact children performing with such prodigious skills. But as soon as one of them giggles at a fart joke or cuddles up to a teddy bear, you’re reminded of their charming innocence.

While the documentary is fairly light in tone, there are moments where you wish it could have further explored the social and economic challenges these children’s families have to face. If anything, The Short Game is not necessarily a portrayal of how hard work can get you to the top; but also how lifestyle, wealth and privilege can drastically affect your chances. Because of this, the film does occasionally leave a bad taste in the mouth as we watch the golfers from poorer countries try to compete with rivals far more financially solvent than they are.

Even if you were to ignore such financial disparities, it’s also a disappointment the film chooses not to do a deep dive into the darker aspects that would surround such a stressful undertaking. While it does pay a minuscule amount of attention; such as when we hear a father state this tournament is his daughter’s only chance for college; or when a parent mentions the use of a sports psychologist; it’s still far too little for what should be an otherwise fascinating topic.


The Short Game is undoubtedly a lovely feel-good documentary concerning the trials and tribulations that some kids must undertake to be the best in the world.

While it’s not unreasonable for a documentary to take a side; it’s still regretful that the film’s 100 minutes barely scratches the surface of the child golfing industry by focusing exclusively on the warm-hearted moments. A stronger focus on the more strenuous aspects of these child endeavors would have easily elevated this film into award-winning territory.

Overall Score:

four-stars

Review: Bleed For This (2016) – A Plodding Path For A Boxing Legend

Late night on New Year’s Day I saw a 2016 film about a sportsman, desperate to prove himself in front of millions and show them he is the greatest. With the love and help of his friends and family (as well as a grumpy, has-been coach), he shows the world why hope and strength can make any dream come true!

No! I’m not talking about Creed. Try again!

Nope! Not Eddie the Eagle! Have another go!

It’s not Race! Guess again!

That’s right people! Vijay’s going to milk this joke for all it’s worth!

Oh alright, fine. I’ll get on with it.

*Spoilsports*

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[Spoilers for 2015’s Southpaw]

Vinny Paz (Miles Teller) is a hungry-for-fame 29 year old professional boxer. Recently crowned Junior Middleweight World Championship, it seems there’s no stopping this young buck from ascending into the stratosphere.

Alas, a devastating car crash resulting in Vinny’s broken neck means he must withdraw from professional boxing as his doctors say he most likely will never walk again.

But his passion for boxing knows no bounds. With the help of his coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) he begins a new training regime. Even though this is against the advice of his doctors, Vinny continues to fight, both physically and mentally, but can he ever return to the ring? (I’ll give you three guesses, but you’re only going to need one.)

Let’s be a little honest here. Haven’t you read that above description before? Just replace “broken neck” with “dead wife” and you’ve got 2015’s Southpaw. Change the time period to the 1930s and you’ve got Cinderella Man. Change the sport to Formula One and you’ve got Niki Lauda from Rush. Throw in an Oscar winning actor and you’ve got Daniel Day Lewis’s The Boxer.

That’s the fundamental problem with this movie… IT’S BEEN DONE! As the film hits every cliche and story beat that has been done hundreds of times previously, you start to wonder why they didn’t just title it “Boxing: The Movie!”

To a certain extent, it’s hard to not be reminded of the similar problem that Disney’s John Carter had to face back in 2012. John Carter (of Mars) made his debut appearance in magazine form all the way back in 1912. But over the next 100 years there were literally 100s of films, books and TV shows that took inspiration from these stories. Popular and critical acclaimed pieces of work such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dune and Avatar have all taken inspiration from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Because of this, by the time John Carter was released in 2012, everything about it felt like it had been done before. This is the exact problem that Bleed For This suffers in spades from.

That’s not to say the film itself is terrible or isn’t competently made. Director Ben Younger does a reasonable job in giving a sense of intimacy during each bout, as well as brilliantly showcasing a shocking head-on car collision

What does save this movie from the utter doldrums though is an above average cast. Teller does in great job playing a hot-headed bad boy, and manages to effectively portray his transformation as he works through his rehabilitation process.

Likewise, Eckhart is similarly committed to his role by not only providing the film’s best comedic moments, but also helping to bring a sense of complexity and pathos to his character’s relationship with Paz.

But regardless of the calibre of the acting, Bleed For This never quite manages to overcome the banality of its plot or succeed in bringing anything interesting to the oversaturated world of boxing movies.

Overall Score:

three-stars

Photo Credit: Den of Geek, Collider, Cine File Reviews