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: Journeyman (2018) – A Beautiful Insight Into British Boxing

Urgh. Another boxing movie? About a man struggling to deal with life when his career is cut short after a serious injury? It’s like a well-followed bus timetable at this point! 2015 it was Southpaw. 2016 it was Bleed for This. And last year it was Jawbone. Come on guys! Considering last year’s most famous sports movies were Battle of the Sexes and I, Tonya; perhaps Journeyman could have been a little different and thrown in a gender swap.

But despite the surface appearance that would suggest this film is just a British version of literally every boxing movie ever made; director, writer and star Paddy Considine does bring a unique touch that helps elevate this movie above the boxing movies of old.

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Loving family man and ageing boxer, Matty Burton (Paddy Considine), is approaching the end of his career. But wishing to go out as reigning champion, he agrees to one final fight with brash newcomer, Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh).

Returning home in triumph, he greets his wife, Emma (new Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker) and his baby girl. But almost immediately he starts suffering from a throbbing headache, which in turn causes him to fall into a coma.

Despite him being rushed to hospital, Matty has suffered serious damage to his brain. Because of this his verbal and motor skills are no longer what they used to be, leaving Emma now needing to take care of two individuals unable to look after themselves.

As a result Matty must go on a journey, not only to restore his former self, but also to try and repair the strained relationships with his family and friends.

After his stunning directorial debut in Tyrannosaur, it could be assumed that Considine’s followup would possess the same darkness that imbued his 2011 film. But such assumptions would be unfounded (Thank God!) as the story of Journeyman doesn’t traverse the path of darkness, but rather one that hews far closer to an uplifting moral drama.

And at the centre of that morality is Considine himself. Clearly not content to only inhabit the positions of writer / director, here he takes on a role that could have been an utter disaster in lesser hands. Perfectly slipping between the moments where his character is calm and collected, and also where he is agitated and confused; Considine presents a man somewhat aware of his sudden change of situation, and yet is powerless to do anything about it.

But compelling portrayals of disability don’t appear in a vacuum. As Tom Cruise’s supporting role in Rainman proved, sometimes it’s a great supporting role for the lead to bounce off that really elevates the film as a whole. And Journeyman is no different, with Whittaker giving hands down the best performance of the entire piece. Though her love for her husband is not in anyway diminished, Whittaker shows the frustration and hopelessness of a woman buckling under the pressure of essentially losing her husband and being saddled with a second child.

Alas, the film takes a little bit of a dramatic nosedive when moving away from the relationship between Matty and Emma, and instead explores the fallout of Matt’s injury on his former boxing colleagues. While this isn’t a terrible choice on its own, said choice means a few characters make some rather odd decisions in order to keep plot moving.

But despite the unusual turn of events, it does lead to the film’s most powerful aspect: its approach to masculinity. Being a boxing movie, you would expect a stereotypical thread about physical strength and the desire to sustain one’s manhood. But here there’s an acknowledgment that male strength doesn’t have to come from raw power, but rather from the attention and sympathy men are willing to give each other. It’s a brave choice and one that leads the entire film to be far more memorable than you might have originally anticipated.

Overall Score:

four-stars

Images © StudioCanal via IMDb,

Theatre Review: He Shoots! He Scores! (2017) – A Play at the Above The Stag Theatre

What in god’s name is a gay musical?

My exact words when being told about the most recent show playing at the Above the Stag Theatre.

But woe be me and my patently ignorant mindset, as Above the Stag has spent the best part of nine years staging some of the best and most original works aimed at the LGBT community. Here’s hoping that He Shoots! He Scores! is as witty as its title suggests!

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Joe (Jamie Barwood) is a likable northern lad on his way down to London in order to join a football term. But he ignore the advice his ex-boyfriend Charlie (Richard Watkins) gives him: Don’t join a gay team.

So Joe finds himself playing for the Hercules Harriers. A football team that is not only the gayest team in London, but also has a success record so disastrous it makes Eddie the Eagle look like Usain Bolt.

Meanwhile, Tayzr (Duncan Burt) has decided to enter the team into a 5-a-side gay football tournament in the sunny neighbourhood of Spain. But a little something is lost in translation and they soon realise they’re the only gay team there.

Together, the five squad members must deal with ex-boyfriends, jealous girlfriends, cheap alcohol, and an incredibly straight Scandinavian, as they try not to make fools out of themselves on the football pitch.

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Before entering the auditorium there was a little worry in me that, even though He Shoots! He Scores! was a musical, it would still be a dark exploration of homophobia within the world of football.

But such worries were banished almost immediately on seeing David Shields’ colourful set design. With only a minimal of props and so much AstroTurf that it literally scales the walls, Shields’ deserves full credit for effortlessly portraying locations as varied as a gay bar, a gay changing room, and a (possibly gay) train station.

Yes, there is an abundance of gay stereotypes. But the utter charm brought across by the actors, as well as Bradfield & Hooper’s Carry On-esque script, makes such ideas far less hackneyed than they might originally seem.

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Such charm is only elevated by the excellent work done by casting director, Harry Blumenau. This is one play heavily dependent on the interaction of its ensemble, and all eight of these fine fellows are fantastically energetic, taking flamboyancy to a whole new level in states of undress that would make a stripper blush.

From the heart-felt struggle between Barwood’s Joe and Watkin’s Charlie, to the rising sense of inadequacy felt by Cooper-Millar’s Pete, as well as the blossoming relationship between Cannon’s Matthias and Mann’s Liam; each actor brings pathos and fearlessness to every sequence.

Though the phrase scene-stealer has become a tad overused in the past few years, in the case of Duncan Burt there is no other expression that could be more apt. Prancing around the stage in his jockstrap and Pokemon encrusted t-shirt, Burt’s larger than life hilarity is worth the price of admission alone.

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Of course, a musical lives and dies on the strength of its songs; and lyricist Jon Bradfield has gone beyond the call. From the laugh-out-loud “Gays can’t play Football”, to the beautiful duet of “Give me a Kiss”; each song is an absolute hoot and demands repeat listening.

And in spite of my previously mentioned apprehension of exploring the dark side of gay football, I did appreciate the fact that the show does take the time to address the difficulties of being openly gay in a sport that values masculinity above almost all else.


I have worked in the theatre industry for just over a decade, and in that time I have learned that a great many people feel that only the very best of theatre is shown within the few square miles of London’s Theatreland.

Assuming that assertion is true, then He Shoots! He Scores! doesn’t deserve to be performed on the West End.

It DEMANDS to be performed on the West End.

Overall Score:

five-stars

He Shoot! He Scores! runs until August 26th 2017 with a 7:30pm performance Tues-Sat, and a 6:00pm performance on Sundays.

Tickets can be booked here.

Produced by Peter Bull

Book – Jon Bradfield & Martin Hooper
Music & Lyrics – Jon Bradfield
Director – Robert McWhir
Musical Director and Arranger- Simon David
Choreographer – Carole Todd
Set and Costume Design – David Shield
Sponsored by The Original Tour

CAST
Joe – Jamie Barwood
Tayzr – Duncan Burt
Dom / Matthias – Andrew Cannon
Pete – Harry Cooper-Millar
Will – Danny Couto
Frazer / Jase / Marcus – Joey Goodwin
Liam – Tom Mann
Charlie – Richard Watkins

Photo Credits: Above the Stag, The Weekender,

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