This Is a Movie Review: ‘Creed II’ Draws From the ‘Rocky’ Franchise’s Past With Both Predictable and Resonant Results

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby

Director: Steven Caple, Jr.

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Swollen Shut Bruised Eyes and Other Boxing Injuries

Release Date: November 21, 2018

The first Creed was just about as crowd-pleasing a blast of a fighter and young man coming into his own as the original Rocky was. And now with Creed II … Adonis Creed’s story continues. If you agree that Michael B. Jordan delivered some much-needed energy as the new lead character in this franchise, you may very well be invested in seeing where it goes from here. But it is hard not to prevent it from all being episodic in a way that sequels like these can so easily be. And naturally enough, just as Rocky II featured Rocky and Adrian marrying and having a son, Creed II features Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) marrying and having a daughter. If you have a heart and any appreciation for family whatsoever, it’s certainly affecting, but also strikingly predictable.

But ultimately Creed II is more of a direct follow-up to Rocky IV, as Adonis squares off against Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), who beat Adonis’ dad Apollo in the ring so badly that he died from the fight. Rocky’s bout against Ivan was a symbolic Cold War-era standoff, and an American-Russian rivalry is the most culturally relevant it has been since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While that subtext can easily be found if you want to examine it, the more prominent theme is the difference in coaching styles. The family and friends in Adonis’ corner offer him no-strings love and support, whereas Ivan constantly reminds his son that he will be a disappointment to his whole country if he does not win. By the end, there is a pivot that demonstrates that the Dragos have a more loving relationship than we are initially privy to, and I would have loved to have seen more of that. We get plenty of scenes with the Munteanu and Lundgren, but if they had been even more the mirror image of what Jordan and Sylvester Stallone do together, Creed II could have been a whole lot more magical.

Creed II is Recommended If You Like: Rocky completism

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Title Belts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Hate U Give’ Confronts Racism and Police Brutality via High School Cinema

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CREDIT: Erika Doss/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, KJ Apa, Algee Smith, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, Anthony Mackie

Director: George Tillman Jr.

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Uneasy Race Relations and the Dangers of Living in a Volatile Neighborhood

Release Date: October 5, 2018 (Limited)/Expands October 12, 2018/Expands Nationwide October 19, 2018

About two-thirds of the way through The Hate U Give, Starr Carter’s father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) lines his children up on their front yard and has them recite a creed he has instilled in them since birth: “Reasons to live give reasons to die.” If you have ever worried, or experienced, how living up to your ideals can put you or your loved ones in danger, this moment is essential viewing. If you can be upstanding and strong-willed enough to avoid being taken down by scandal or shame, then you do not have to worry about too many vulnerabilities. But you can still be devastated if you have a lot of love. Maverick defiantly insists that his children make peace with that for the sake of their family, and his example is a wonderful expression of what parents should demand of their children, or indeed what everybody should demand of their fellow human beings.

This is the inflection point that brings into focus the dilemma that Starr (Amandla Stenberg) is struggling with throughout The Hate U Give. She is the only witness to her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), an unarmed black teenager, being fatally gunned down by a white police officer during a routine traffic stop. She is thus Khalil’s best potential advocate for justice, but she must weigh going public with her account against the potential consequences. She risks alienation from her classmates at the predominantly white high school she attends, as well as much worse from the local drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) who would seek retribution for the wrong secrets getting out. Not to mention the moral and emotional responsibility of possibly becoming a symbol for an entire movement.

The power of The Hate U Give is in the well-realized vision of its lived-in community. Starr and her siblings are growing up in a classically American code-switching existence: living in a low-income, predominantly black community while getting educated at an upper-class, majority white school. The Carters have the means to move out of their home, but their familial and cultural connections make that decision a little complicated. Theirs is a family that has close blood relations with both police officers and career criminals in a manner that makes perfect sense.

The portrait of Starr’s high school, though, does not quite have as much depth. While the casual racism that her classmates display is believable, the white characters are not always fully fleshed out, occasionally sounding like little more than stereotypes. One partial exception is Starr’s boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), who may say some clueless or insensitive things, but when confronted with a real crisis, he asks Starr genuinely, “How can I help?” This is absolutely no white savior narrative, but it is a story that recognizes the importance of communion and reconciliation.

The film’s title is inspired by the lyrics of 2Pac, who philosophized that communities of color were oppressed by outside institutions influencing them towards fulfilling their worst stereotypes. Ultimately, Starr realizes however that communities must heal themselves, as they are kept down not just by the hate they receive but also the hate that they self-inflect. The truest explanation is that it is really a combination of both, and while The Hate U Give attempts to end on a somewhat overly simplistic note, it does otherwise present a scenario that sincerely conveys that complication. There is hate out there, whether or not you give it or only receive it, but ultimately it is up to every individual to choose to live for love.

The Hate U Give is Recommended If You Like: John Hughes Films, Social Justice

Grade: 4 out of 5 Reasons to Live