YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Creed II / The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: Creed II
Whether you consider the latest installment of the iconic franchise as the eighth Rocky or the second Creed, the fact remains the series shows little sign of wear and tear. The sequel not only continues the development of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of Apollo and protégé of Balboa himself, it digs back thirty years to revisit Rocky’s all-time greatest villain—Ivan Drago. And while that might at first glance seem something of a gimmick, the results feel completely natural in the context of the film’s many rich themes.
The most overarching of these can be summed up in a single word: family. The diversity here is impressive, as new director Steven Caple Jr effectively pays respect to no fewer than six sets of familial conflicts, all seamlessly crafted around the requisite pugilistic bouts and training montages. Like many people, I was dismayed and concerned when Ryan Coogler announced he would not be returning to helm the sequel. But Caple proves more than up to the task, and brings the heart, hands, and pain that have made the most memorable films of the series endure.
To narrow down the family drama, the filmmakers focus on the sins of one generation being passed to the next. While the first film touched on this idea with Adonis struggling to come to terms with his late and absent father, the sequel extends to living up to that legacy. Adonis, having risen to a championship belt to take his place alongside Apollo and Rocky, struggles with what such success really means. And for the past thirty years, there has been one family waiting in the wings for the opportunity to show him.
Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is a broken man, having been disgraced and abandoned following his loss to Balboa (in Rocky IV). He sees a path to redemption through his son, Victor (Florian Munteanu)—bigger, badder, and stronger than even Ivan himself in his prime. Raised on revenge against Creed, Balboa, and the mothers (literally and figuratively) who discarded them, they nearly break Adonis as they did his father. And while that might seem like history lazily repeating itself, the filmmakers take that repetition and turn it to an advantage. We get to explore the emotional turmoil that dredging up the past takes, of choices regretted, and the impotence to move forward. Rocky tries, as any good father figure does, to keep his child from making the same mistakes he made; and like most parental attempts, it falls on deaf ears, as children far too often need to learn their errors for themselves.
If the first Creed was more about Adonis finding an identity, the second is about him finding a purpose. When Ivan killed Apollo, Rocky had clear motivation to fight. But with that score somewhat settled, what is Adonis really fighting for now? That question drives much of his journey, and like Rocky before him, he needs to dig down deep within himself and trust those in his corner to find his answer.
Paralleling Rocky II, Adonis marries his longtime love, hearing-impaired musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and starts a family of his own. And even here we see elements of generational sin which are too clever to spoil. All said and done, there’s hardly a character in the film who doesn’t struggle with that theme, and that’s the beauty and the strength at the heart of it.
As you might guess, with so much going on, each and every actor must be at the top of their game. Leading by example is Jordan himself, who not only put his body through the necessary punishment for a jaw-dropping physique, but to believably emulate the skills of a world-class boxer. There’s no question he’s got the physicality, but even more impressive is his emotional range, as he tracks Adonis across a spectrum of gritty highs and lows. Stallone’s Rocky has always been an everyman, and Jordan follows suit, bringing a conflicted and often reactionary human side to Adonis, as well as evoking an empathy for his varied struggles.
Stallone himself, having lost out on an Oscar for his last turn as Balboa, returns with perhaps an even more impressive powerhouse performance. His pseudo-parental role firmly established with Adonis, he struggles with it much as he’s struggled with his relationship with his own son. Rocky’s always been a man of heart over mind, and as such his words come slow, but when they do, they ring true. Sly once again proves he’s got acting skills to match his biceps, and brings a soft-spoken vulnerability that he uses to gently push Adonis where he needs to be both as a fighter and as a man. And by the end of the film, Rocky has succeeded in his new arena as a father, and seems content to now step aside. Stallone himself recently announced his retirement from the role, and if that’s true, he could not have gone out on a higher note (of course, we said that back in Rocky VI too!).
Lundgren must also be recognized for his exceptional work on a role that previously was more about how he looked than how he acted. Drago had all of about four words in Rocky IV, and doesn’t have too many more this time round. But if the reason then was to make him a silent menace, the rationale here is to let him speak volumes through his actions. Drago’s anger has festered for 30 years, and he’s pushed himself and his son into position to regain their honor. But what’s most impressive is how Lundgren conveys his deep love and concern for Victor, culminating in a beautiful demonstration at the end.
In parallel, Munteanu supplies this generation’s quiet giant, with hardly a word spoken throughout. But again, the newcomer is remarkably expressive with but a look, and conveys his own emotional journey of living up to his father’s demands, making his own statement, and dealing with the abandonment by his mother. Even while writing this, I’m still struck by how much story and characterization came through with so little dialogue, and how impressive a feat it is to keep the characters true to themselves while providing a rich and effective throughline.
As Bianca, Tessa Thompson returns to add not only a female perspective to such a male-dominated genre, but someone very much invested in both the themes and the characters. As a go between for Adonis and Rocky, she is key to helping them reconcile their relationship; but more than that, she steps up as someone who can replace Rocky as councilor and partner. She’s with Adonis every step, healing him physically and emotionally, while still finding her own niche as artist and now mother. It’s a tapestry that Thompson weaves with her typical effortless skill, and truly cements herself as the third pillar of the current franchise.
Rounding out several other returnees is Phylicia Rashad as Mary Anne (Adonis’ mother), Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky’s son, Robert, Wood Harris as Tony Burton, son of the previous run’s trainer “Duke,” and even Brigitte Nielsen as Ludmilla, Drago’s ex-wife. Each in turn serves far more than a cameo, furthering the familial theme with solid and intrinsic performances.
Okay, now let’s testosterone this up a bit and talk action. Each chapter comes at the fights in a different way. After eight films, we’ve seen just about everything: wins, losses, draws. Each result supports the character’s journey and tries to keep the audience guessing or rooting. The designs of the contests have evolved accordingly, from mostly wide-shots and a few closeups, to HBO-mimicked bright lights and handhelds, to now incorporating the whole shebang. Caple not only puts us in the ring, but really makes us feel each blow, and what it means to the progress of the bout. Any good fight is a story, and the fights in Creed II all reveal nuance to the narrative and the characters.
If there one major criticism I’ll lay at the film it’s the training sequences. We get two main ones, the first being the traditional workout montage to rhythmic beats, showcasing the development of speed, muscle, and power. We’ve seen all that before, and while it’s always fun and amps you up, by the time we get to the second—and most important—we want more. Having done California beach and Russian snow, we move to the American desert, which seems a fairly random choice picked merely for its novelty. And while Adonis dehydrates himself and learns to take a punch, we don’t get a whole lot of his development as a fighter. In Rocky III, we saw Apollo train Rocky to completely reinvent himself as a boxer: faster, lighter on his feet, more coordinated—things he needed to defeat Clubber Lang. In Rocky IV, while he certainly trained his body, he was breaking himself down to a single focus: beat Drago. Here, with Adonis clearly outmatched in his first bout with Victor, he needs more than running down highways and punching tires. We get only one specific training tool added to his belt, and while effective, it feels isolated. Personally, I wanted to see more of Adonis receiving a new outlook, a new mindset, new skills that will serve him rather than just the lifting and punching. But with all that said, it’s a relatively minor quibble few may have to an overall effective film.
Whether the franchise continues, and with or without Stallone, it seems to be in good hands. Jordan has the whole package to carry it as far as he’s willing to go. With finds like Coogler and Caple consistently inventing new insights into the characters, I’m excited for the future. As long as they keep punching, I’ll keep coming.
YANG: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
If you aren’t quite sure what to make of this new Netflix film from the Coen brothers, there’s a very good reason: it’s a hard one to pin down. As a whole, the anthology film showcases six different stories from the Old West, each a moral fable of one kind or another, offering a specific commentary on a particular aspect of Western life. And while some stories work better than others, fans of the horse opera or the Coens aren’t likely to be too disappointed.
To say the Coens’ filmography is eclectic is like saying space is big; it hardly does the word justice. They’ve touched on just about every category out there at some point, winning as many accolades for their absurd comedies as for their violent dramas. They do, however, seem to have a predilection for the Western. With several movie touching on the genre in tone and style, they finally dove in outright a few years back with their remake of True Grit. Now they return with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, this time chopping up their tale in order to cover every tone and style in one fell swoop!
But true to form, not every Coens’ film works as intended. Personally, I find The Big Lebowski to be their crowning achievement, never equaled or surpassed. And thus perhaps I’m predisposed to consider the first and most comedic entry, the self-titled Ballad of Buster Scruggs, as the best of the bunch here. Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular hero, a clean-cut singing dandy who also happens to be one of the deadliest gunslingers in the West (and Highlander fans will enjoy seeing Clancy Brown, albeit briefly). The humor ranges from delightfully silly to surprisingly dark, but ends with the lesson all gunslingers come to learn the hard way: there’s always somebody better.
While the remaining five stories all have equally significant messages, none reach the same comedic heights, yet all have an equally bleak ending. The theme connecting the varied stories seems to be the balance between the optimistic, adventurous, exciting aspects of taming the West and the dangers, horrors, and misery related to the struggle to survive it. Each story highlights the beauty as well as the ugliness of the land and, most especially, those that travel it.
Some stories are fairly straightforward, some are exceedingly artistic . . . or even disturbing. The two that respectively deal with a young orator missing all four of his limbs and the dark carriage ride of several strangers discussing their views on life and death are easily the blackest of the tales. And only one hero can be said to truly come out on top, on the whole better than when he started. For the rest, it’s a hard reminder that the good and the bad must both succumb to the will of the wilds, and that fun as it might be to fantasize about striking gold or playing cowboys and Indians or shooting it out duel-style, the reality was far less attractive.
The assembled cast is a veritable who’s-who, claiming a generous mix of big names and top talent. Aside from those mentioned, we have the likes of Liam Neeson in a far more disturbing turn, James Franco playing it impressively understated as a hard-luck bank robber, and even Tom Waits as a surly prospector. Up and comers like Zoe Kazan make a definitive statement as a vulnerable but self-assured young woman making her way across the prairie, with Bill Heck managing to balance the leather-tough and keenly sensitive cowboy who assists her.
But probably the most impressive performance for me was from Harry Melling as the aforementioned orator. Playing a young man sans both arms and both legs is tough, but more a matter of CG than anything. No, it was his oratory skills, the powerful deliveries of soliloquies, poetry, and speeches that would have made the Bard weep. The role requires a man who can enrapture the attention of an audience, and Melling does just that (quite a long way from playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter series!).
The visual effects are kept to an unobtrusive minimum, but the effects of the visuals are stunning. Wide-angle panning shots of magnificent rural vistas captivate, and shots are often framed to emulate the stunning paintings of the likes of artists Charles Russell or George Catlin. The landscape is every much a character and is given center stage more often than not. Scenes and shots, therefore, can run long, holding on a view or the quiet isolation of a valley for far longer than expected. It can be as frustrating as it is awe-inspiring for those wishing for a bit quicker pace.
But in the end, if the Coens’ never make another Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs could serve as every comment they’d ever wished to make. It won’t be everyone’s brand of campfire coffee, but then that’s a Coen M.O. And more often than not, their aim is true.