Reel Opinions

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
is a movie that so desperately knows what it wants to be, which is to follow in the very same footsteps of many a Marvel Movie before it.  It sticks slavishly to the popular formula, mixing spectacle and special effects with a smart aleck know it all sense of humor, that I ultimately saw it as nothing more than an imitation.  Rather than carve out its own identity, it simply wants to do what it knows is popular with current audiences.

It's not just the overly familiar formulaic structure of the film that bothered me, mind you.  The plot is laughably simplistic, the villains are virtually non-existent for a majority of the run time and leave no impression whatsoever, and the gags the writers do come up with are so predictable I was even able to see the set up for the mid-credit gag as soon as it was established.  And yet, everybody in this movie is definitely trying, and I admired a lot of the performances.  Or, perhaps I should say, I'd admire them in a different movie, because very few of them came across to me like they were supposed to be in a fantasy film.  Some talk in modern day slang, while some seem to have wandered in from a completely different movie and look lost.

Take our lead heroes, Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez).  I never for a minute believed they were supposed to be the leads of this particular movie, because they don't even act like they're starring in a fantasy epic. Pine as  Edgin is constantly shooting off quips left and right like your modern day sarcastic action hero, and seems to be playing to the audience instead of inhabiting a plot.  Rodriguez, meanwhile, has the role where she acts like your standard video game heroine, smashing the heads of various faceless bad guys, while never once breaking a sweat or damaging her hair and make up.  They break out of prison in an opening that is very dragged out and snarky in its humor.  They're in jail in the first place because they're a pair of thieves who got betrayed by one of their band, the smarmy Forge, who is played by Hugh Grant, and basically gives the same charming yet buffoonish villain performance he gave in Paddington 2.  

After they are free, they set off on a quest to find a resurrection tablet, which Edgin wants to use to bring back his dearly departed wife, whose death led to him taking on a life of thievery in the first place.  He also has a young daughter (Chloe Coleman) who is being held by the slimy Forge, who has poisoned her mind so that she hates her father for abandoning her years ago.  There's also a group of Red Wizards who want to wipe out all humanity, but they figure much less into the plot than you would expect.  The movie is really all about Edgin and his pals getting into one comically sticky situation after another as they search for the tablet.  Joining them is a sorcerer suffering from self-esteem issues when it comes to magic (Justice Smith)  and a shape-shifting druid (Sophia Lillis).  The movie constantly brings up how the sorcerer once asked the druid out, but failed, leading us to expect a romantic subplot, but it never really goes anywhere of note.

This is a movie that's been designed top to bottom as a crowd pleasing entertainment, but what the filmmakers have forgotten to do is put in a little something special that the audience has never seen.  It's so focused on emulating popular trends and humor that it forgets to forge any kind of identity of its own.  Dungeons & Dragons is likable, but with a movie like John Wick: Chapter 4 likely playing in the exact same building, that's just not enough.  I kept on waiting for the movie to step up its game and impress me, and instead found a likable cast floundering in a plot that is hardly there.  Again, I bring up the Red Wizards who, I repeat, want to wipe out all humanity.  And yet, the character who represents them (Daisy Head) matters so little in the grand scheme until the climax that I almost forgot she was in the film.  I also found it curious when one of the characters seemingly suffered a mortal wound in the final battle, when I don't remember it even happening during the actual battle.  Maybe I missed something?

I have no doubt that the movie will "win the weekend" and inspire the franchise it's aiming for.  I actually wouldn't mind seeing these people in a sequel.  Just give them a plot worth giving a damn about next time around, and maybe give them an actual story to inhabit where they don't stand around making snarky one liners to one another to hide the fact that the writers forgot to give them one.


Friday, March 24, 2023

John Wick: Chapter 4

What started back in 2014 as a lean 100 minute thriller about a former hit man drawn back into the criminal underworld in order to avenge the murder of his dog has morphed into the nearly three-hour long John Wick: Chapter 4.  Overkill?  Hell, yes.  Is it still the best thrill ride the movies can provide, and the first must-see movie of 2023?  Oh, Hell, yes.

In my review of 2019's John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, I stated that as much as I admired the film like I had the others, I was getting worried that the movie was perhaps getting a bit too out there as it started to dive deep into its world that it was creating, increasing cast of characters to keep track of, and bizarre crime empire that was growing more elaborate with each passing entry.  This latest installment, despite being longer than it needed to be, goes back to basics, and just gives what I have always admired about this series - Keanu Reeves as the stoic and mostly silent (Seriously, I think he has the least amount of dialogue in this one than any of the previous films.) killer who everybody in the world wants to gun down, due to the increasing price on his head, leading to action sequences that are absolutely absurd, but shot so brilliantly by stuntman-turned-filmmaker Chad Stahelski that they eclipse just about anything Hollywood has attempted in the action genre, save for the recent Mission: Impossible sequels.

Can I just say what a joy it is that this film (and the other John Wicks) are edited so cleanly and allow the audience to truly savor the stuntwork and action on display?  In this day and age of rapid-fire editing and heavily CG sequences that resemble so much a cartoon that we may as well be watching Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd throwing down, here is a film that reaches a kind of grandeur with its action.  There are about four major action sequences in this film, each of them choreographed to a level of perfection we just don't see in film anymore, and most of them seemingly going on for nearly a half hour.  And yet, they never grow tiresome in the slightest, and I found myself anticipating what the film was going to throw our way next.  This is the kind of film people used to call "non-stop thrill rides".

I'm thinking back as to when those kind of movies went out of style.  I guess when filmmakers like Michael Bay and the like rose to fame, people just wanted as much CG as the screen could fill, to the point that I have started to wonder if they even need to hire stunt people anymore, or if everything is just done on a laptop.  Here, we not only get to savor every detail, but the movie treats us to sights audiences have never seen before.  It would be a disservice to talk about them here for those reading who have not seen the film, so I'll simply say I commend every actor, crew member, stuntperson, effects artist and the like who brought these sequences to such vivid life.  Sure, some questionable CG does sneak in there and takes you out of the moment, but this is still leagues beyond most of the stuff that is considered acceptable action in your modern day epic or blockbuster.  

The plot picks up with Wick (Reeves) still on the run and killing anyone trying to collect the bounty that's been placed on his head by the lead heavy of this entry, the Marquis de Gramont (Bill SkarsgĂ„rd).  The Marquis is also cleaning up some messes for his criminal organization, the High Table, which could spell trouble for some of the returning characters that Wick has had run-ins with in the past.  This entry sends John Wick all over the world, including Japan, Berlin and Paris, with the very best moments saved for Paris, although the action in Japan and Berlin would be worthy climaxes in just about any other film you care to mention.  There are some familiar faces with Lawrence Fishburne and Ian McShane, and many welcome new ones like the always-awesome Hiroyuki Sanada, as the head of the Japanese syndicate, and the equally-awesome Donnie Yen as a blind killer who has a past with Wick (as everyone seems to in these movies).  Shamier Anderson also gets to stand out as another killer who is never without his emotional support dog, and will only go after John Wick when the price is right.

Despite the movie's bloated nearly three hour run time, John Wick: Chapter 4 never gets bogged down, and feels as light and as fast-paced as many much shorter films.  That's because the movie doesn't get quite so bogged down in the world and the details as some of the sequels did.  Here's Keanu as Wick, he kicks ass as he should, and the crowd goes nuts as they should.  This series is one of the few films I can think of that can elicit audible gasps from its audience from some of its more painful or brutal stunts, and I will admit, some came from me.  There are few films that I can label as being a pure rush of excitement, but this is one of those times.  Even when the movie does slow down, I was still gripped, because we've come a long way with these characters, and after four entries, this one gets to go out perhaps the only way it could have.

This is a movie to watch with a large audience on opening weekend, one that is fully engaged and along for the ride.  It's the kind of experience that only the theater can provide, and why it must survive.  Watching this streaming on a laptop should be a crime.  See it on the biggest screen possible, cheer, scream and gasp, and just go for the ride that this movie provides.


Friday, March 17, 2023

Shazam!: Fury of the Gods

I love the wish-fulfillment aspect that lies at the very core of Shazam!: Fury of the Gods.  The idea of a teenager (and in this sequel to the 2019 original, a group of teens and preteens) being granted the ability to become full-grown adult superheroes with incredible powers holds a lot of charm to me, because comic books are built entirely around the wish fulfillment of the reader.  If the movie had truly run with and explored this idea, we could have something truly whimsical and perhaps powerful.

However, like so many blockbuster epics, this central idea gets buried by a sense of everything but the kitchen sink being thrown up on the screen.  If ever there was a movie that didn't need an hour of endless special effects, buildings being shattered, and mythical creatures threatening humanity, it's this one.  This is a movie that calls for a light touch, not a sensory bombardment.  Alas, that's what returning director David F. Sandberg does.  He throws so many special effects shots into the mix that they start to blend together, and the audience can no longer be involved, because it's no longer a story, but a tech demo.  The first hour of the film filled me with promise, while the second hour drowned me in an orgy of senseless spectacle that meant nothing.

Here once again is young actor Asher Angel, playing high schooler Billy Batson, who in the last film was granted the ability by a powerful and snarky wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to become a caped adult superhero (Zachary Levi) whenever he shouts the magic word, "shazam".  Last time, we got to see how he gave some of his powers to a group of fellow foster children, so they now all get to be superheroes as well.  The movie has some fun with idea early on, with Billy wanting them to be a family of crime fighters, while some of the other kids in the group are starting to drift into other interests like college and dating.  It's right about this time that the Earth faces a new threat in the form of the Daughters of Atlas, three mythical sisters who are the daughters of the Titan Atlas, and wish to seek vengeance for what the wizard did to their father.

The sisters include the powerful Hespera (Helen Mirren), the vindictive Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and most importantly the youngest sister Anthea (Rachel Zegler from 2021's West Side Story), who unlike her two older sisters has a soft spot for the humans, particularly Billy's best friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer).  Their plot involves encasing the city of Philadelphia within a magical dome, and it takes a superhuman effort for the viewer not to think of 2007's The Simpsons Movie when you see the city permanently encased.  I actually was waiting for someone in the movie to bring up the plot similarity, but no such luck.  Despite three enormously talented women taking on the roles, they get to do little more here than to summon the special effects that will menace our heroes for the remainder of the over two hour run time.  It's at this point that Fury of the Gods slowly started to lose me, because everything that came before was a set up for non-stop destruction that we've seen in countless superhero movies by now.

I like these characters, and the actors who play them, so why waste all this talent in a movie that's not even going to exploit them, other than to react to monsters and destruction that will be added in post-production?  Given the current glut of superheroes filling theater space, you have to do a lot to stand out, and simply having hordes of monsters stampeding down the street just isn't going to cut it.  I say, you see one cyclops ripping a car in half, you've seen them all.  The filmmakers have a strong foundation here.  Billy wants a "family", because as a foster kid who was abandoned early in his life, he wants to belong.  And because of this, he clings a bit too tightly to his friends.  This element is here, but not as strongly as you would imagine.  It doesn't drive his character like it should, so it never comes across as the character arc like it should.

Once the carnage starts, it's nonstop and gets to be tiresome.  It's all a bunch of set up to more films and a wider universe for Billy and his friends, but given the current behind the scenes turmoil going on at Warner Bros. and the DC Cinematic Universe in general, you have to wonder if it's just going to be a bunch of build up to films that will never happen now that other people are in control of these characters.  I'd like to see this continue, because like I said, I like these characters.  I just want to see them in a movie that truly knows how to use them, and has them interact with each other, instead of participating in endless battles.  There's charm here, but it all gets blasted away once the sensory overload of destruction starts up.

There is such a likable and whimsical movie at the core of Shazam! that never gets to come out here.  The filmmakers had a chance to truly play up the wish fulfillment aspect, and create something truly delightful.  Instead it tries to mimic current blockbuster trends, and ends up being much less memorable because of it.


Wednesday, March 15, 2023


When did movies become so cynical about dinosaurs?  Here are wondrous beasts that existed millions of years before us, and should bring about a sense of awe and wonder.  And yet, in the recent Jurassic World sequels and now 65, they are treated solely as either a jump scare tactic, or like targets in a video game.  In a way, the whole film resembles a video game, as it's simply nothing more than a gun-toting hero trying to get from Point A to B, while fending off massive beasts that jump out at him over and over.

Here is yet another movie that proves my belief that Hollywood takes scripts that some 60 years ago would feature no-name actors on obvious sets being chased by rubber monsters, and spruce them up with bigger talent and the finest special effects money can by.  Strip away all the modern flash, and this thing would be right at home on late night television in the 1980s, or be ridiculed on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The movie wants to be a survival epic, and writers and directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods have experience in that field, as they worked on the screenplay for John Krasinski's A Quiet Place and its sequel.  However, while those films had a certain element of humanity and genuine tension to them, 65 is nothing more than a spruced-up B-Movie from another time.

The movie rushes through its set up, which makes it hard to care about its lead character, a space pilot by the name of Mills (Adam Driver), who hails from the distant planet of Somaris, along with his loving wife (Nika King) and young daughter (Chloe Coleman).  The little girl desperately needs an operation to save her life from an unnamed disease.  It's because of this operation that Mills takes a job that will send him away from his home planet for two years for a space expedition.  However mid-voyage, the ship is struck by an asteroid, and a majority of the ship and its passengers are lost when it crashes on Earth some 65 million years ago.  

I want to pause here, and bring up how this scene plays out.  We first see Mills sleeping in his quarters on the ship, when he is stirred awake from the noise outside.  Yes, he actually hears the asteroid striking the ship in the vast vacuum of outer space.  Students of the Alien movies will tell you that in space, no one can hear you scream, but apparently you can hear an asteroid shower.  I'm aware that Sci-Fi movies don't have to play by our laws of nature, but that immediately gave me the vibes that I was essentially watching a B-Movie with a big budget.  After the crash, Mills finds himself stranded on a prehistoric Earth inhabited by a variety of dinosaurs who exist to either lurk in dark shadows and leap out, or to jump directly in the path of Mills' blaster gun when convenient.

The only other survivor of the crash is a young girl named Koa (Ariana Greenblat), but there's a language barrier between them.  Apparently Mills' part of the planet Somaris speak English, while Koa speaks some other language.  From that point on, the guy basically tries to keep the kid alive, while the little girl essentially wanders into one dangerous situation after another that he has to help her escape from.  It's here that I started to feel like I was watching two actors impersonate a video game, as the remainder of 65 concerns them trekking across a dangerous landscape, being menaced by giant lizards, and trying to find a usable escape pod so that they can return home.  The movie is literally that simple, and with no real opportunities to build a connection with these two characters, I started staring at the clock periodically.  

I think a lot has to do with the casting.  Adam Driver is one of our great actors, but he is completely wrong to play a gun-toting hero who is this kid's only chance at survival.  You need a grizzled actor for this role, or a charming rogue.  Driver is much too soft-spoken, and never seems the slightest bit interested..  Even when he's supposed to be fretting that he may never see his family again, or trying to grapple with how to tell this girl that they are truly alone, he never convinces.  Young Ariana Greenblat might go on to great things one day, but I can't tell, as here she's basically required to scream and wander blindly into sequences that set up the next action beat.  She's essentially like one of those video game characters with horrible AI that the player is expected to guard in order to complete the level.

Yes, the effects are well done, and at only 93 minutes, the movie at least doesn't feel bloated.  But there's just simply nothing here.  And why did we need another blockbuster that refuses to acknowledge the awe and wonder of dinosaurs, and simply uses them for cheap thrills?  Even the B-Movies of old that this so closely resembles knew how to have fun with themselves.  65 is deadly serious, and deadly dull.


Monday, March 13, 2023

Scream VI

Scream VI
clearly still displays the love for the franchise that last year's Scream (the fifth installment) had in droves, but if things don't seem to be quite as solid as last time, it's only due to the obviously rushed production schedule this film had.  Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpen and Tyler Gillett, along with returning screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, clearly didn't have as much time to think this one out, and it shows.

I still had fun watching this, and I'm recommending it, but I hope they take a bit more time with the inevitable Scream VII.  However, given the box office weekend numbers, I'm sure Paramount will have a sequel greenlit before most people have had breakfast on Monday morning.  I do admire how much the people behind these current films seem to respect the original vision of director Wes Craven and previous writer Kevin Williamson.  Not only that, but they were working with an added difficulty this time around in that series lead, Neve Campbell, would not be returning, due to contract negotiation issues with the studio.  Her character's absence does get a brief passing notice in a line of dialogue, and given the circumstances, the filmmakers handle her not being here well.  I'm sure they will be working on bringing her back in a future entry, but at least they handle not having her well.

Scream VI more or less is a direct continuation of the last one, which basically means don't think about walking into the cinema without rewatching what happened before.  That's also one of the big issues I had with the film.  The thing I admired the most about last year's movie is that it added a timely satirical element by taking aim at toxic fan communities in film and the obsession that seemingly grows with certain people when legacy film franchises get rebooted, or taken in a different direction.  Since this sequel is a direct continuation, it basically covers the exact same ground all over again, and feels overly familiar.  The energy of the cast, the suspense, and the moments of humor are still present, but it can't help but feel like a bit of a retread, given the crew didn't have as much time with this entry.

We're reunited with our new heroines, sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara Carpenter. (Jenny Ortega, who is racking up quite a reputation as a "Scream Queen", having appeared in six horror-related projects since 2020.) After the events last time, they have decided to get out of the fictional and deadly town of Woodsboro, and move to New York City along with their surviving friends.  Tara wants your usual college experience of making bad choices, while finding out who you are at the same time.  Sam, meanwhile, is still haunted by what happened before, as well as by her personal history, as she still gets visits from a ghostly vision of her illegitimate father, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), one of the men who started this whole Ghostface Killer business back in 1996.  Naturally, they are not safe for long, as a new set of psychos have shown up to torment them as the notorious Ghostface, whose threatening voice over the phone is once again provided by Roger L. Jackson.

The movie gives us a new group of suspects, mainly made up out of Tara and Sam's friends in the city.  One of the issues I had with last year's Scream is that the young suspects were a bit weak and obvious, and this trend continues here.  Luckily, the cast is strong and energetic enough to make them appealing, even if they're not as interesting as I would like.  Also added to the cast is a trio of adults, including the ever-present Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who is given less to do here than before, as well as a hardened police detective (Dermot Mulroney) investigating the new sets of murders.  He's partnered up with Kirby Reed (Hayden Penettiere), who was one of the young potential victims in 2011's Scream 4, and has grown up to be an FBI agent still haunted by her past experience.  Like last time, the movie does its best to throw us off the course of guessing who the killer is, but it's fairly obvious at some point in the film.

The problem here is that the ultimate reveal and motive for the murders doesn't quite stick the landing.  Obviously, I can't go into any detail, but it just seems a bit of a disappointment after the last movie cleverly went after toxic fans who get too involved in their favorite franchises, and act as "protectors".  That said, despite the familiarity of the concept and the somewhat disappointing conclusion, there is still lots to admire here.  I particularly liked the opening sequence, which cleverly sets up a string of murders to kick off this new Ghostface spree in a way I did not expect and was a lot of fun.  And even if the filmmakers were forced to crank this one out rapidly, they have not lost any of their visual flare or their obvious love for these characters and the series itself.  There's just a few more stumbles this time, and I blame the rushed production schedule for that.

Scream VI
shows there's still plenty of life (and death) on display, but I really am hoping this doesn't become an annual deal, as I don't want to see this franchise get worn down by corporate greed.  I say unless they come up with a really great idea, leave the fans waiting for the seventh entry just a bit longer. 


Saturday, March 04, 2023

Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre

Despite a starry cast and Guy Ritchie, an expert when it comes to fast-paced comedic caper films, at the helm, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre has been sitting on the shelf for two years now, and has been kicked around different studios as it looked for distribution.  It almost went straight to streaming, but received a generous last minute theatrical release, albeit a quiet one.  And while the movie is nowhere near as unwatchable as you might expect hearing all that, this is still a big disappointment.

This is a comedic action spy film that keeps the audience intentionally in the dark as to what exactly all the main characters are looking for.  So, it winds up spinning its wheels as it kills time with a lot of unfunny comic banter, and action sequences that are not worth the price of admission.  It even misses out on a great comic opportunity.  Right from the first scene, we learn that the film's hero (played by Jason Statham) suffers from a large number of phobias.  An action hero who is fighting a variety of phobias could actually be quite funny in a comedic thriller, but after this information is delivered to us in exposition, it's never once truly acted upon.  It's quite odd, and makes me wonder if that info was something that was taken out from an earlier draft of the script.

Statham plays the steely Orson Fortune, who is called away from his holiday by British official Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) to track down a stolen briefcase.  Nobody knows what it is, who stole it, or who wants it.  They just know it's important, and a lot of very bad people want it.  Again, this is all the information the movie supplies for us for most of its two hour running time  By the time it's finally revealed, we have long lost interest.  All we know is that Fortune, along with fellow spy J.J. (Bugzy Malone) and master computer hacker Sara (Aubrey Plaza) have to track it down, and stop a billionaire named George Simonds (Hugh Grant) from getting his hands on it.

To infiltrate Simonds' inner operation, the group of spies blackmail one of George's favorite celebrities, a vain movie star named Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett) into joining up with them.  This immediately brought to mind last year's The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which found Nicholas Cage playing a caricature of himself as he is wrapped up in a hostage plot, and having to infiltrate a criminal fan's world.  Unfortunately, this movie is nowhere near the level of wit and intelligence as Cage's film, and it's simply not fun here.  And because the object everyone is looking for is kept a mystery for so long, there's little suspense to be found, and scenes go on too long with little payoff.  

The strong cast that Operation Fortune has gathered seem to be tethered to the lame script provided by Ritchie and his fellow writers.  I wanted to see these people really dig into the material and have fun, but there is just such a lifeless quality to them and the entire film.  There is none of the rapid pacing or dialogue from Ritchie's other works, and little of the visual flare he can sometimes bring.  The characters simply seem to walk into fight and action scenes with little provocation, and many are truncated or are simply not memorable to begin with.  There is simply a generic quality here, with a lead hero who is never once in over his head or in real danger, and never a sense of the stakes being raised.  If the comedic dialogue had been worthwhile, it might have livened the material, but that's a dud as well.

This is simply a movie that exists.  It plays out, leaves as little as impression as possible, and it only got made because everyone involved got paid.  We, the audience, get to simply sit in the dark, watch it unfold in a slow and uninteresting manner, and go home.  Not exactly worth the price of admission, if you ask me.


Creed III

While still not the rousing success that 2015's original Creed was, Creed III is much better than the sequel we got in 2018, and is the follow up that the first one deserves.  If Creed II took the likable characters that were introduced in the first and plopped them into an uninspired three act structure with none of the nuance we had come to love, then this film does a much better job of juggling expectations and the formula of the franchise, while still giving these characters plenty of emotion.

The movie also stands out as being the first film in the Rocky franchise to not feature any participation from its creator, Sylvester Stallone, although he is credited as an "in-name-only" producer on the film. One of the key problems I had with Creed II is that it had a hard time balancing the characters of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Rocky Balboa, and did not seem to know whose story we were supposed to be focused on.  I blamed this on the fact that Stallone himself had been given the screenplay of that film, and he struggled inserting characters that were not his own creation into his own world.  Stallone chose to sit out on this entry, and while it is strange that his character is not even mentioned here, it does allow the characters who were introduced in Creed to stand out again.

Another first this film marks is that its lead star, Michael B. Jordan, also takes on directing duties for the first time.  He shows a wonderful sense of pacing, as the film's nearly two hour run time is quite swift while you're watching it.  He also knows how to balance the drama and humanity of his characters with the boxing action.  This is much more a human drama than it is a sports story, and I was happy to see this movie go back to focusing on these characters and their personal demons, rather than fitting them around a predetermined sports underdog story like last time.  Jordan understands these characters and this world they live in, and he makes them all compelling, even if the plot they're in feels familiar.

One thing I noticed is that Jordan likes to focus on small moments with his characters that get to their core.  There's a scene early in the film where Adonis reunites with a friend from his youth named Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors, who continues his rising star status here after appearing as the villain in the Ant-Man sequel just a couple weeks ago).  The scene is shot so intimately that we can see both the love and the tension that is brewing between the two men during their conversation.  This is appropriate, as it's their history that drives the plot.  The friend was on his way to being a professional fighter in his youth, and had taken a young Adonis under his wing.  But, a fateful night tore their destinies apart when Damian ended up going to prison for nearly 20 years, and Adonis got to live the life he dreamed of.  Now the guy wants his shot at fame, and Adonis is torn between respect for his former friend, and the knowledge of how dangerous he can be in the ring.

It is that relationship between these men both in and out of the boxing ring that drives the plot of Creed III, and the movie handles it beautifully.  This movie is so interested in getting inside the heads of its characters that it even finds an inventive way of doing it during the climactic fight, which I will not reveal here.  The film also wants to focus on Creed's growing family, as he is still married to the lovely Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and they now have a daughter named Amara (Mila-Davis Kent), who is deaf.  This is a welcome change, after Creed II basically slipped Bianca into the background as a "supportive wife" after she made such a strong impact as a character in the first film.  Here, she gets more attention, as she sees how this man from her husband's past effects him, and is scared it will tear all of them apart.  Also back is Phylicia Rashad as Adonis' mother, who gets more than a few powerful moments of her own.

It's not that we can't see where these characters and their plots are going to end up.  It's that I appreciated that this film was taking its time to explore them and giving this wonderful cast ample opportunities to fill them out.  I enjoyed spending time with them, and I appreciated that this movie was putting a strong emphasis on them, which I had missed in the last movie.  There's actually not much here that is new, or that we haven't seen in the previous eight Rocky movies.  But it's all handled with great care and by a wonderful cast.  I also appreciated how clean and well shot the fight sequences were.  In interviews, Jordan has said he drew a lot of inspiration from his love for Japanese anime in staging the boxing scenes, and he comes up with some inventive ideas, such as when he does visualize his fighters' emotions in a key sequence.

Creed III
lacks the surprise of the first, because we are familiar with these characters by now.  However, it also understands these characters, and knows how to make them stand out from the formula of the plot, which is where the last sequel fell short.  While I don't think Stallone should be completely cut out as he has been here, I do appreciate that this film has been given a fresh look by someone close to the people who inhabit the story, and knows how to get to their core. 


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