Read a synopsis of either of Creed or Magic Mike XXL, two of 2015’s best films, and sight unseen it might hard to understand the excellence of either film. The former film, after all, follows a fairly stock Hollywood formula, hitting its Best Picture-winning predecessor’s plot points beat for beat, while Magic Mike XXL is pretty well just another road trip movie. Of course, narrative isn’t everything; such a simplistic view ignores the distinct pleasures of each film, whether its Steven Soderbergh’s pseudonymous, superlative cinematography in XXL or Ludwig Göransson’s supple, superb work on the soundtrack and score of Creed. I’d argue that the real success of these two films is in their shared ability to ground their conventional storytelling in sympathetic characters through believable dialogue.
Authenticity in dialogue tends to be associated with improvisation; think Robert Altman’s boom mike, roaming through a crowd of actors improvising around his instructions, or Mike Leigh’s famous aversion to using screenplays. Improv is a factor in the production of both Creed and Magic Mike XXL; Tatum reportedly improvised the line, “You bangy?” on set, while Creed director Ryan Coogler has spoken about allowing Stallone to experiment with different approaches beyond the page. But the real pleasures of these two films is how the authentic conversations are founded in a rich understanding of character; there’s more to these films’ dialogue than actors going off-book now and again.
Fighting and Flirting in Creed
Creed is the seventh (!) film in the Rocky franchise, which launched Sly Stallone’s career – as actor and screenwriter – back in 1976. The original film has none of the bombast you’d expect from its reputation (a reputation that can be credited to its mid-‘80s sequels, which embraced the excess of their era). Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is memorably inarticulate, mumbling through his lines whether addressing the press or attempting to court Adrian (Talia Shire). Moments that have stuck in our wider consciousness – the training montage, or Rocky downing a glass of raw eggs – have a tangible reality to them that belies the series much-parodied position in pop culture.
There’s also an odd racial undertone to the film in its positioning Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) as the villain; as the splendidly successful, fabulously wealthy World Heavyweight Champion, Creed’s stands in stark contrast to Rocky’s lower-class Italian mope (who freelances as muscle for a mafia loan shark, even). There’s nothing explicitly racist going on, but it’s a little off to position a black man as an icon of American excess in this way; thankfully, subsequent sequels mellow this rhetoric somewhat. For example, in the rather dismal Rocky III, Creed becomes a close friend of Rocky’s and Paulie’s (Burt Young’s) racism is overtly challenged when they visit Creed’s local gym.
Creed, by centring on a character who’s an amalgam of Creed and Balboa, presents a far richer take on race in America. Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) – commonly called Donny or “Hollywood”, since no-one can say “Adonis Johnson” with a straight face – is Creed’s illegitimate son, with a background bridging stereotypical black disadvantage (absent father, violent childhood, shuffled from group home) with, once he’s taken in by Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), his father’s affluence. He shares, therefore, the underdog characteristics of Stallone’s protagonist in the early films, along with Rocky’s drive to prove himself (as in Rocky III, where Balboa held onto to the heavyweight belt by facing a string of over-the-hill challengers). Donny’s objective is simple, but resonant: to prove that he wasn’t a mistake, to prove that he deserves to share his father’s name (and, implicitly, his lifestyle).
As a portrait of a black man whose financial privilege shelters him – somewhat – from the kind of structural racism his peers are subject to, there’s a nuanced consideration of ‘blackness’ running beneath Creed’s underdog-come-good narrative. Donny simultaneously believes that he deserves better than what he’s got while feeling uncomfortable with the fame associated with his name (it occurs to me that this is a way better execution of what they tried to do with Anthony Mackie’s character in The Night Before, but I digress). Rather than emphasis these themes, writer-director Ryan Coogler – whose debut feature, Fruitvale Station, was also a collaboration with Jordan with a complex take on race in modern America – weaves them subtly through his screenplay, most memorably in the interactions between Donny and his (eventual) girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson).
That was a long-winded intro to get to what I really want to talk about: the dialogue. But I think it’s important to ground this conversation in race, because felt so revolutionary – though that’s maybe an overstatement – about Creed’s dialogue is how effortlessly it foregrounds its characters’ blackness. Not through any explicit discussion of race (as far as I can remember, that’s omitted entirely), but simply through the way Donny and Bianca talk. Most black characters in Hollywood movies talk either: a) like any other character, because they’ve been written by a white middle-class screenwriter, or b) like broad stereotypes, their language peppered with ‘slang’ or references to their race … because they’ve been written by a white middle-class screenwriter.
Now, as a white middle-class Australian dude, I can hardly speak with any authority as to whether Donny and Bianca’s conversations are an authentic representation of how young black people talk, but it sure sounds it – probably because they were written by Coogler, a black man in still in his twenties. Contrast the way Donny talks when he’s talking to Rocky or the trainer at his gym with how he flirts with Bianca – casual, confident, in a noticeably different dialect (using phrases like “keep it 100” in everyday speech, rather than in the semi-ironic way white teenagers have appropriated them).
It doesn’t hurt that Bianca has been imagined as more than a girlfriend to prop up our hero, but rather a real person with her own career goals, her own problems and a readiness to call Donny on his shit. (The relationship conflicts here are based on real betrayals of trust and equality, rather than the trite misunderstandings we’re accustomed to.) When the two of them do something as small as share a pair of headphones – a fragile moment of vulnerability and intimacy – it feels so much realer than a film like this is supposed to feel.
These are minor points, maybe, but critical to the way Creed creates a real sense of character and in how it suggests the growing intimacy between the two lovers. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear dialogue this naturalistic in a big-budget film, and yet it is. For all the praise you can throw at Creed – Stallone’s rock-solid supporting performance, Maryse Alberti’s kinetic, compelling cinematography – it’s the film’s foundation of character that allows it to follow through the motions of familiar formula without ever feeling …familiar.
Magic Mike XXL and Competitive Masculinity
I feel like I’ve read dozens of thoughtful thinkpieces breaking down every miniscule aspect of Magic Mike XXL, from its complicated conception of female sexuality – which is either empowering or deeply problematic, depending on your perspective – to Peter Labuza’s argument that its cinematography “correct[s] the injustice of 35mm’s treatment of black bodies” (one I’m increasingly uncomfortable with, but is certainly worth reading).
What I haven’t seen anyone discussing is the film’s take on male friendship, which is – no hyperbole here – the most accurate depiction of the combination of masculine competition and platonic love that, in my experience, drives long-term male friendship. Like Creed, Magic Mike XXL assumes a recognisable movie storyline – in this case, the road movie, with all its concomitant challenges and destination (in this case, a stripping convention on Myrtle Beach) as climax. And, granted, the way the film effortlessly cruises through its stopovers is a lot of the reason why it’s so entertaining. But I just love how perfectly it encapsulates the commingled tension and warmth of best buds hanging out together.
Said tension is most apparent between “Magic” Mike (Channing Tatum) and “Big Dick” Richie (Joe Manganiello). Right from their first scene together – where a nude Richie tosses a full-clothed Mike into a swimming pool against his will – the two commence circling one another, verbally sparring and jostling for authority. The idea of the ‘alpha male’ might be somewhat psychologically simplistic, but in situations like this – a group of guys experiencing a recent power vacuum (after the departure of Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas) – it’s entirely on point. Richie is the default alpha when Mike returns to the scene, but Mike’s reputation – and apparent business success – positions him as a genuine threat to Richie’s role in the group.
Hence the bickering. Richie is clumsier; more overt. Beyond the whole swimming pool thing, he continues to chisel away at Mike’s ego with these ‘jokes’ that are geared towards destabilisation rather than getting laughs. ‘Good-natured’ only not really. Mike takes a more practised approach: nonchalant superiority. He brushes off Richie’s jabs with references to his business, bragging about his plentiful accounts and employees. If this were a boxing match, Richie would be the one swinging away with wild attacks, while Mike is outpacing him, effortlessly blocking and dodging. That is, until Richie lands an uppercut by tossing Mike’s phone out the window (notably, right as Mike is posturing about a “bunch of orders [that] just came in.”)
There’s an edge to these exchanges that’s typically omitted from the shit-stirring you see between blokes in movies, a vulnerability that’s generally ignored. That vulnerability is tied to the strength of the bond between these men (Richie and Mike, yes, but the others too). Just as Donny and Bianca have to establish real intimacy in Creed by breaking down the boundaries between them, Mike and Richie can’t reforge their relationship until they get through these insecurities, this macho braggadocio.
It turns out that the best way to get past all that bullshit is MDMA. (Though Ken (Matt Bomer, who works out his own reconciliation with Mike, might argue that beachside meditation is equally successful.) While blissing out on molly, the guys tear down the weight of history, throwing out the props associated with past dance routines alongside truth bombs. “There was a giant hole inside of me that was created when you left,” confesses Richie, “and now I feel like it’s full again.” Mike reveals his own deception. “I have one employee,” he says, “and I can’t even pay for his health care.”
This conversation might dispel the tension between the men – it’s all love from there on out – but it also reveals the real core of Magic Mike XXL’s anxieties: the future. Every one of these characters has dreams for the future: Mike wants to expand – or least, sustain – his furniture business; Tarzan (Kevin Nash) wants a wife, and to paint; Ken wants to sing; Tito (Adam Rodriguez) and Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) and Richie all have their own (variously plausible) business aspirations. Those dreams seem increasingly difficult, particularly with the absence of Dallas – and the implied loss of income for those still dancing.
If Magic Mike was really about scraping a living in post-GFC America, Magic Mike XXL is about looking into the empty chasm of the future and finding hope there. Thanks to your friends, thanks to those moments of joy and celebration. Shared spaces of love where the future doesn’t seem so bleak. You might have to fight for those moments – through your inadequacies, through the combative competitiveness that separates you from your friends – and maybe there won’t be anything waiting afterwards. These are big ideas. Bigger than you’d expect from a frivolous road trip movie about male strippers. But they succeed because they’re grounded in real people, who talk like real people do.