REVIEW: “Creed II”

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One of my biggest regrets of 2018 was missing “Creed II” in the theaters. The first film was a wonderful surprise. At first I didn’t buy into the idea of a “Rocky” spin-off focused on Apollo Creed’s son. It turns out I was selling short both Ryan Coogler as a writer-director and Michael B. Jordan as an actor. They actually had a good story to tell and it was one of my favorite films of 2015.

“Creed II” features most of the key elements that made its predecessor great. Ryan Coogler who wrote and directed the first film isn’t here for the sequel but the deeply grounded and character-centered approach he used definitely returns. Yes, it’s a boxing movie so there are certain sequences you know you’re going to get. But this is first and foremost a movie about its characters and the lives they live.

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As if we needed more proof, “Creed II” cements Michael B. Jordan as an all-out star. He returns as Adonis Creed, three years removed from the events of the first film and now on a streak of significant boxing wins that puts him in line for a title shot. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) still sits in his corner and his relationship with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has intensified.

Meanwhile in the Ukraine we see Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) training and handily winning a series of lopsided boxing matches. If that last name sounds familiar, it should. Viktor is the son of Ivan Drago (a returning Dolph Lundren) who killed Adonis’ father in the ring over thirty years earlier. Ivan then lost to Rocky earning the scorn of the entire Soviet government. See where this is going?

Adonis gets his title shot and wins the WBC World Heavyweight Championship. On top of the boxing world, he proposes to Bianca and the two contemplate leaving Philly for Los Angeles. The Dragos get word from an opportunistic promoter (Russell Hornsby) that Apollo Creed’s son is champion leading them to come to the States and issue a challenge to Adonis. Rocky wants no part of it which infuriates the bull-headed Adonis who sets out to fight Viktor Drago without his mentor in his corner. Gulp!

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“Creed II” is very much an underdog story in the vein of most other “Rocky” pictures. But as I mentioned it’s much more interested in what makes these characters tick. New director Steven Caple Jr. understands that and he never loses that focus. The script was co-written by Stallone and Juel Taylor who plant most things firmly in the real world. This adds real consequences to the boxing matches as well as deep personal conflicts. That is until the big final fight when several of the characters who were once deeply concerned weirdly toss that aside and get onboard without a hint of conflict.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of “Creed II” is that you don’t feel the absence of Ryan Coogler. That’s not a knock on Coogler, but high praise for Caple, Jr. It helps to have a stellar returning cast (I didn’t even mention Phylicia Rashad who is back as Adonis’ mother. She’s so good). It all makes for a truly satisfying sequel and a second installment to a spin-off franchise that I never expected to be this good.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

K&M RETRO REVIEW: “Rambo III”

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“Rambo III” holds a very distinguished position within my movie history. It has the honor of being the first R-rated movie I watched in the theater. It was 1988 and I was 16 years-old. My uncle was down for the weekend and offered to take me to a movie. This was a big deal because there was no theater in my small town and going to the movies was a real treat. Being a huge fan of 80s action movie icons Schwarzenegger and Stallone, naturally I went with “Rambo III” when asked to choose. To my surprise my uncle agreed and the rest is meaningless movie history.

For me the Rambo franchise ended after “Rambo III”. Sylvester Stallone attempted to bring it back in 2008 with the profoundly mediocre and generically titled “Rambo”, but it lacked the feel and (yes I’m going to say it) the charm of the original three flicks. For me “Rambo III” is a satisfying  way to finish a testosterone-fueled, biceps-flexing, action-packed exercise that fits nicely into the over-the-top 80s action catalog.

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The Rambo series will never find its way onto drama school curriculums, but by this time Stallone was pretty in tune with what his character needed. The screenplay (co-written by Stallone) gives us a more grounded John Rambo (aside from the one-man-army awesomeness of course) and Stallone isn’t asked to stretch beyond the bounds of his acting abilities. For example, gone are the schmaltzy end of the movie theatrics he gives us in the first two films. Well meaning but laughably bad scenes and slightly worse acting.

But that doesn’t mean the film is free of cheese. We get plenty of it especially from Richard Crenna who delivers several lines dripping with Velvetta. My personal favorite: (speaking about Rambo) “God would have mercy. He won’t”. This goes hand-in-hand with the film’s attempt to inject a touch of humor. It tries not to take itself too seriously as evident by Rambo’s numerous jokey one-liners, some that work, some not so much.

The film starts by giving us a disillusioned Rambo who has finally found a degree of peace working at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. His mentor and one true friend Colonel Traitman (Crenna) finds him and tries to recruit Rambo to join him on a special mission. Rooted in the politics of 1988, the mission is to deliver supplies to rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Rambo declines, Trautman goes anyway and ends up captured by a brutal Soviet officer named Zaysen (Marc de Jonge). Rambo gets word and sets out on a solo mission against all odds to rescue his friend.

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This bromance takes Rambo to the toughest terrain he has faced. Filmed mostly in Israel and a bit in Arizona, the locations offer themselves up to a believable setting and some great action sequences. This also may be Stallone’s most physically demanding performance of the series. Sly runs, jumps, climbs, fights, and unleashes an insane amount of carnage. In several ways he tries to outdo the second film – bigger stunts and bigger action. For me it absolutely works.

“Rambo III” was hammered hard by critics but still made good money at the box office. I can see some of the criticisms now better than before. It is loud, violent, and mindless. Also the film doesn’t have an ounce of strategy or subtlety with its political messaging. Perhaps it’s the jaws of nostalgia tightly clamped on my perspective, but I still have a ton of fun with this film. It’s lighter, the action is energetic, and the cheese adds to the experience. I was the target audience back in 1988 and I had a blast with “Rambo III”. Maybe the ability to still look at it through that lens enables me to appreciate it for exactly what it is.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Creed”

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If you had told me at the start of the year that I would pay money to go see a “Rocky” spin off with old man Stallone training the son of Apollo Creed I would have laughed in your face. Nothing about that concept sounds appealing. If you would have told me I would not only see the movie but thoroughly enjoy it, I would have called you insane. Yet despite my closed-minded skepticism “Creed” turned out to be one of the bigger surprises of 2015.

A ton of credit can go to the film’s director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. You may remember him from 2013’s “Fuitvale Station”. Coogler reunites with his Fruitvale star Michael B. Jordan to give us a film that is one part spin-off and one part sequel to 2006’s “Rocky Balboa”. On paper this sounds like an all-around bad idea but Coogler does something special. Much like Fruitvale there is an earnest dedication to telling its story through human lenses. There is such a genuine humanity to the film that even when we get the big crowdpleasing moments, they feel completely earned.

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The movie begins by introducing us to Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan), a young man living in the shadows of a troubled childhood. He is the son of the late boxing great Apollo Creed and born from an extramarital affair. Apollo’s widowed wife (Phylicia Rashad) finds Donnie in a juvenile facility and takes him in. She gives him a plentiful life and helps him get a good job with a promising future.

But there is a perpetual inter-turmoil inside of Donnie. He is filled with anger and angst that he releases through fighting. First it’s small-time fights in Tijuana, Mexico, but later he quits his job to go pro in hopes of carving out a name for himself. He heads to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s close friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone). He asks Rocky to train him but the aged former champ turns him down. Donnie’s persistence combined with loyalty to an old friend leads Rocky to take the young fighter under his wing.

You could say Coogler is simultaneously telling two different stories. Donnie’s is a search for his own identity. He wants no part of his father’s legacy and he keeps him a secret. He wants to make his own name and plow his own path. But at the same time he needs guidance and stability in his life and in the ring. We genuinely like the guy because he is an underdog. That’s why audiences first embraced Rocky way back in 1976. Jordan has the same charm and authenticity to win us over.

But there is also the story of Rocky. Gone is his swagger and larger-than-life persona. Replacing it is a melancholy contentment with where he is at in this stage of his life. He’s tired, older, grayer and Stallone wears it truthfully and without an ounce of show. The physicality is gone yet Sly is given a lot more to do. It’s a deeper and dramatically meatier role and I would call it easily one of the best performances of his career.

Boxing is certainly a key part of this film, but it mainly serves as a support for the true meat and potatoes. Coogler is interested in his characters and their relationships. Every boxing scene whether training or an actual fight tells us more about Donnie or it builds up his relationship with Rocky. Then there are other characters like a local musician (Tessa Thompson) who Donnie falls for. She opens up an entirely different side of Donnie. But these relationships work because Coogler takes his time and allows them room to grow and breathe.

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Coogler also shows a remarkable technical ability especially for a young filmmaker. There are so many things I liked about his presentation. There are several fabulous tracking shots that cleverly use lighting or darkness to give the appearance of long takes. And how many boxing sequences have we seen over the years? Yet Coogler’s slow-moving camera and his knowledge of when to pull the camera back and keep it still result in some exhilarating boxing scenes.

There are other impressive touches such as the way he shoots Philadelphia and the handling of the music (often teasing us with variations of Bill Conti’s original “Gonna Fly Now”). It all works to service the characters and their stories. “Creed” has its clichés and its big mandatory crowd-pleasing moments, but even they are handled well by a confident filmmaker who is a true rising talent. For Coogler this is a step up from the admirable “Fruitvale Station”. For Jordan it’s a bold ‘getting back on track’ after “Fantastic Four”. And for the 69 year-old Stallone it could equal and invitation to the Oscars. Now that would certainly bring a smile to my face.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW : “The Expendables 3”

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The entire Expendables franchise started as a nostalgic rekindling of the once prominent over-the-top action genre. It wasn’t afraid to parody itself or play with the familiar action cliches of the 1980s and early 90s. And half of the fun was just seeing these actors together hamming it up and shooting a ton of bullets. The first film was entertaining and it set the table for the second installment which I thought was funnier and more self-deprecating while clinging to the all-important nostalgia. Now we have an inevitable third film which tries to keep the ball rolling.

“The Expendables 3” is made for a PG-13 audience (at least so it says), but don’t be misled. The body count is still astronomical and bullets fly aplenty. But the blood is reined in just enough to somehow keep it from an R rating. Unfortunately its desire for a broader audience, while noble in purpose, is undermined by the fact that the movie simply isn’t as fun or nostalgic as either of the first two pictures.

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Sylvester Stallone and his action ensemble returns minus Bruce Willis who declined because he wanted more money (one of the film’s funnier jokes takes a shot at the publicized dispute). And in keeping with the franchise’s trend, several new stars are added into the mix. Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and action star extraordinaire (sarcasm absolutely intended) Kelsey Grammer. These are some interesting names and it would be fun to see what the movie would be like if they were all that was added to it.

But in an attempt to inject some youth and potentially pass the torch, a group of new Expendables are added to the group. This is one of the film’s major blunders because none of these youngsters are the slightest bit interesting. They are cardboard cutouts and sometimes their acting makes Stallone’s look good. In case you don’t know, that is no compliment. They are walking talking cliches and they zap the movie of its fun and playful energy.

But the film’s main dish is the action and as I mentioned there is plenty of it. The problem is it lacks the pop that we’ve seen in the other flicks. What I mean is the action scenes rarely energize the movie. In the earlier films regardless of whatever narrative problems they would be having you could count on the action to liven things up. Here it often feels generic and monotonous. There are moments when they do pull off one of those great over-the-top stunts that feels right at home in the 80s. There are other moments that just feel like a boring grind.

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Thankfully some of the old action veterans do save this from being a disaster. Mel Gibson is deliciously maniacal as the head baddie. While his grand scheme and ultimate motivations are murky, Gibson has a ball with the character and I loved every minute he was on screen. Harrison Ford was also a hoot as a grumpy hard-nosed CIA officer. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also fun and every line he has seems to be poking fun at himself. Same with Wesley Snipes. But many of the cast gets lost in the shuffle and rarely get their signature moment in the film. Too many characters and not enough screen time to go around.

In the end “The Expendables 3” lacks the fun, the excitement, and the charm that the franchise built itself on. The action isn’t good enough this time around to save the film from its clunky and paper-thin plot. And while some of the old guys are a lot of fun, namely Gibson and Ford, too many characters are shortchanged thanks to the introduction of an insipid younger crew. It’s unfortunate because I have always enjoyed these movies as entertaining nostalgic escapes. “The Expendables 3” has left me wondering if this ship has run its course.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Escape Plan”

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Ever since the release of “The Expendables” in 2010 there has been a resurgence of 80s styled action pictures. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the two biggest names from that once immensely popular genre, have returned to the big screen with a number of bullet-riddled movies. The two stars join together, bicep to bicep, to bring us the silly and implausible “Escape Plan”. But who would go to a Sly and Arnie movie looking for something with deeper meaning?

In many regards “Escape Plan” is big, dumb throwback fun. The entire premise is a bit goofy and writers Miles Chapman and Jason Keller trip over themselves in the telling of the story. But still, there is a nostalgic satisfaction that this movie provides. It hearkens back to ‘the good old days’ for these two stars. They have more gray hair, they’re slower, they need more camera trickery to make them appear like the big screen tough guys they once were. But both still have charisma and an air of confidence that makes this film fun even amid its occasional eye-rolling bad dialogue, gaping plot holes, and overall silly concept.

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The story goes like this: Stallone plays a fellow named Ray Breslin and he wrote the book on prison escapes and I mean that literally. He is the head of a security firm that evaluates the strengths of maximum security prisons. How does he do this? He develops a false identity, has himself placed in the prison, and then breaks out. Helping him in this odd but apparently lucrative business is his skittish business partner Lester (Vincent D’Onofrio), his trusted associate (and possible romantic interest) Abigail (Amy Ryan), and a computer hacker named Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).

One day Breslin and company are approached by a CIA operative (Caitriona Balfe) who wants him to test a top secret prison built for the worst criminals. It’s the mother of all prison breaks that comes with a healthy $10 million payday attached. Breslin decides the money is too good to pass up so he throws aside his standard safety protocols and allows himself to be captured, drugged, and transported to “The Tomb” (play ominous location music here). Once there he quickly learns he’s been set up and it will take the help of a surly fellow inmate named Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) if he hopes to get out.

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Swedish director Mikael Håfström does a fairly good job of keeping things moving once it gets started and there are some interesting twists along the way. The Tomb itself is pretty neat with its honeycomb glass cells and intriguing secret. The guards wear black uniforms and cool futuristic masquerade ball masks (although I’m not sure why). Then there is Jim Caviezel who is a ton of fun as the soft speaking sadistic warden. His deliveries and mannerisms offer an entertaining variation of a fairly familiar character type. And while Stallone is in serious mode most of the time, Arnie gives the film some humor. Amid his sometimes corny dialogue and patented wooden line reading, he tosses out some pretty decent laughs.

All of that sounds good but unfortunately the problems I mentioned earlier do stand out. You’ll have to accept its absurdity and understand that there are several questions you’ll never get sufficient answers for. The storytelling is a little sloppy in places, the dialogue a bit cheesy, and it doesn’t have many of those big moments that we’re used to getting from these fellows. But I still give the film some credit. Stallone and Schwarzenegger aren’t spring chickens any more but the fact that they still have those big infectious action-packed personalities says something. And that’s a big reason they’re able to make this film work.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Grudge Match”

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Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro have had incredibly successful movie careers. What a shame that they have reached a point to where they would sign on for something as gimmicky and flimsy as “Grudge Match”. The trailer for the film left nothing to be desired. It made the movie look shameless and utterly predictable. Well, after seeing it I can confirm that it hasn’t an ounce of shame and you’ll see everything coming from a mile away. That said, it’s still not as bad as it could have been. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Stallone and De Niro have both had big successes with boxing movies – Stallone had “Rocky” and De Niro “Raging Bull”. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to see this film is clearly milking the whole Rocky Balboa versus Jake LaMotta novelty. Yes these are different characters who have different stories and different personalities. But this is clearly meant to cash in on the two older and superior movies. The big problem is I couldn’t care less about the gimmick.

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The story is a pretty ridiculous and cliché-riddled. Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were big time boxers who had a heated rivalry stemming from their two fights where each won one apiece. But right before the decisive rematch Razor retires. Thirty years later Kid is still furious that he was denied his shot at Razor. But as luck would have it a loud mouthed aspiring promoter (Kevin Hart) eventually gets a rematch. It’s first viewed as a big joke but soon, through the power of the cell phone generation, people begin to take notice of this grudge match for the ages (did I really just say that?).

Perhaps the best thing about this film are the performances. Both Sly and Bobby give committed performances even though the material is weak. To be honest I’m not surprised that Stallone would take a part like this, but it’s really sad to see De Niro reserved for such fluff. That aside, each gives all he has to try to make it all work and they are both really good. The problem is you have to wade through endless ‘out of shape’ jokes, over-the-hill gags, and some trumped up drama that is impossible to sell. It has a few funny moments and it is fun watching these two work. But it’s not too much to ask for a smarter and more engaging script.

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Most of the supporting cast is very good even though they too are hampered by the lackluster material. Alan Arkin is cast as Razor’s crude trainer. Arkin is always good but here is is such a caricature. Kim Basinger also pops up and tries to save a role that is so fabricated and poorly written. We also get Jon Bernthal as a character shoehorned into the story for dramatic effect. He’s actually very good and he’s really proving himself as a better actor with each new role. All of these performances are good despite the narrative obstacles each face. I can’t really say the same for Kevin Hart who seems to be in constant standup comedy mode. Every single scene he’s in features him doing his shtick. Eventually it grew tiresome and annoying.

So how do you summarize “Grudge Match”? It’s a film featuring some good performances, scattered chuckles, and pretty capable direction. But you can dress up the pig all you want and it’s still a pig. When it comes down to it the commitment of the actors and the decent direction can only go so far. At some point you have to have good material and that’s what “Grudge Match” lacks. What we are given is hokey and forgettable comedy that’s not nearly as funny as it wants to be. I was definitely ready to throw in the towel.

VERDICT – 2 STARS