Directed by Steven Caple Jr.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and Dolph Lundgren
Reber’s Rating: B+
I have a bit of a confession to make – I’m one of those folk who have no love for Rocky IV. Yes, I’m painfully aware of how much in the minority I am and, surprise, my personal favorite is Rocky Balboa but that’s an argument for another day. My lack of appreciation in Rocky IV is derivative of the dearth of storytelling. In both 1977’s Rocky and 2006’s Rocky Balboa the amount of time dedicated to develop character led to flesh-and-blood performances that took precedence over the actual boxing matches themselves. Instead, Rocky IV‘s original cut was dwindled down to a lean-and-mean drama that zips by without any heart and fueled by pomp and flash. I was still fascinated by Dolph Lundgren’s Russian colossus Ivan Drago though, even if we never had no real idea of the man behind the visage of the beast.
I always wanted to know the more human side of the character. I know Stallone wrote Drago as a silent and stoic cretin, but what of the man outside of the public eye? The pressure on his shoulders, the desire to succeed and be heralded by his country. For 23 years audiences still clamor about the superiority of Ivan Drago over the likes of Clubber Lang and Tommy Gunn. (Let’s not talk about Tommy Gunn though, please no.) So when Warner Brothers dropped the first trailer for Creed II, highlighting a hungry Adonis Creed squaring off against Ivan’s brutish son Viktor, of course I was drawn back. Why not? Drago appears to be a shell of the monstrosity he was in the 1980’s, my interest yearning to learn more of what he’s endured. Yet, could the sequel to Creed manage to hold its own without Ryan Coogler at the helm?
Creed II may be the second installment of this sequel franchise, yet Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis isn’t the only sole focus. This is also very much the tale of Ivan Drago, dogged and beaten and scorned by his people for decades, and of Rocky Balboa, battling his ghosts and demons while assessing his importance in the world. Ultimately Creed II is the story of reclaiming oneself, rediscovering the person deep down inside when the world tides against you, and rising up for what you believe in most in this world. This may seem like a cookie-cutter remake of Rocky II but under the surface lies a film that really takes the phrase “no man is an island” and crafts a well-oiled drama built on the tried and true Rocky formula of yesteryear.
One thing many take for granted is what the enduring franchise is at its heart. The characters may live in a world where boxing is their calling in life, yet the franchise has been about family when the movies shine their brightest. Remove the cheesy Rocky IV and melodramatic Rocky V, you’ll find the narrative of men who refuse to stay down when life says otherwise. The same laborious world that could have kept Balboa pigeon-held pressures Creed very much the same. Stallone, who has long served as the creative architect of the franchise, now serves in the same capacity of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey, trying to keep a young hungry boxer on the righteous path. Winning comes with costs, with both the public eye and in private, and rolling with the punches to remain indomitable is what buoys Creed II as a worthy successor to Coogler’s 2015 darling.
For starters, people need to understand that the newer films are not about Rocky Balboa. Balboa’s now in his early 70’s, worn thin by loss and regret and choosing to serve as a father-figure to Adonis, doing the job that Apollo should have. The Creed films are about a character defined by his father’s legacy and trying to carve out his own namesake in the world. Creed was raised with a full belly, yet always hungry to become a fighter like his father. The sequel franchise should stand apart from the first six films, from story and style down to the musical cues. Gonna Fly Now was Rocky’s theme; Adonis has his own inspiring chords to tug at your heart strings and surge your adrenaline. The demons nipping at Adonis’ heels are much different from Rocky’s. Creed II manages to distance itself from Balboa’s tales, showcasing why Adonis Creed is the right choice to become the new face of the franchise, Rocky by his side as the all-knowing mentor. The past may dog both men in different ways, but the story is not the same.
Creed II succeeds not due to Stallone’s passions of the boxing world but for the struggles the characters must stare down. Stallone yet again delivers a utterly moving performance as Balboa. He was cast aside from winning an Oscar a couple of years ago, and very much deserved the statue then, but proves even more why his stagecraft should not be ignored. An older Balboa is far more relatable than the earlier entries of the franchise, less about the glory and more about surviving and living to awaken another day. Balboa may have a lot of mileage but found success later in life, his fear rooted in confronting the past. Why address what scares you most? And, really, aren’t we all guilty of that same sentiment? Balboa doesn’t fear Drago, but of the real loss the Russian left ingrained afterwards. The choices Balboa made haunt Rocky and, as such, approaches Adonis with more reservation in decisions. Stallone, not as large a presence as Jordan’s Creed, almost manages to steal the show and yet again shows why he should be adored for his latest rendition of Balboa. Give the man that Best Supporting Actor Award.
The long-awaited return of Ivan Drago can be seen as a ploy to get asses into seats, yet his inclusion makes the most sense. Dolph Lundgren isn’t even in a quarter of Creed II, yet offers audiences a more human and stripped-down depiction of Ivan Drago than I expected. This is the Drago that we should have seen back in 1985, but worth the 33-year wait between appearances. Lundgren may a very intelligent yet stone-faced action star but his portrayal here speaks volumes of his talent. Drago is beaten down by time, tossed aside by his wife following defeat on the world stage, forced to live in a smaller apartment raising a son on his own. You can see the writing across Lundgren’s leathered face, the sadness in the sullen eyes and a desire for his son to be loved and appreciated. Ivan doesn’t harbor hatred for Balboa, but thirsts for revenge over Rocky’s protege. He fails to understand the compassion in Rocky’s heart, why a fighter should place people before himself. Had I seen this side of Drago in Rocky IV I would have more acclaim for the drama.
And yes, I am aware that the real stars of Creed II – Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad – haven’t been mentioned. But really, I feel no need to rave about their performances. We know what all accomplished in Creed and, yet again, all step up to bat to make this sequel more emotional. The trio are the heart and soul of the sequel, trying to help Adonis to stop chasing his father’s shadow and to make decisions that benefit both him and his family most. Anyone can be trapped in the recesses of their mind attempting to work their way out. Jordan is just such a genuinely talented actor, a fiery passion for his craft oozing out of every scene. Really, though, we’re here to see the struggles of Balboa and Drago. That notion does overshadow Creed II a smidge, though the film manages to balance all three plotlines as best as possible.
I do question the desire for Adonis and Bianca to ditch the brotherly love vibe of Philadelphia for the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. To become a world-class boxer Adonis needed to be humbled by the denizens of Philadelphia. Creed grew comfortable in Philly and wanted more for his family, to see Bianca to thrive in her music career. Philadelphia always will be the heart of the franchise, and the decision to uproot Creed back to the City of Angels takes away some of the grit of the characters. The reason audiences related with Creed was how homegrown both Adonis and Bianca felt, having grown up as normal folk on the same streets we occupy. To transfer Adonis back to where his daddy called home almost feels like Adonis will become more like his father. I don’t want Creed III to focus on how these characters deal with success. That was Rocky III. Give us something more, something different.
Creed II is woven from the same cloth as the six Rocky films, there’s no doubt of that, yet the maturation of these characters is what cements the sequel franchise’s legacy. Coogler’s flair in creating the boxing matches, thrusting audiences in the midst of the bout and becoming part of the action, was a breath of fresh air. I just don’t want to see the Creed franchise try to stick to the Rocky formula. Stallone’s mathematics in creating entries are tried and true, but times have changed. Creed II shows that the past can chase you for as long as you’re on your feet and forces you to eventually face yourself. What scares you the most can be your biggest opponent. Creed II forces its characters to face the past to define their futures and shape their characters. I expected another Rocky movie but instead witnessed powerhouse performances that only fuel my desire to see more of both Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed.