If there was any one problem with 2015’s Creed, the reboot/continuation of the decades-old Rocky franchise, it was the lack of a compelling antagonist. The pugilistic kind, anyway. With all due respect to “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew), Rocky films work best when two battles wage simultaneously: the first is the internal struggle for love and relevance, often against great odds and circumstance. The second, more cinematically pleasing, is watching two men beat the hell out of each other with everything they’ve got.
2014’s otherwise decent reboot of Godzilla also suffered from this; how could fans ever be satisfied with generic cockroach monsters when icons like Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah all waiting in the wings (literally) to be used effectively?
Creed 2 rectifies this right out of the gate by re-introducing the most iconic rival in all of Rocky-dom: Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the chemically-enhanced Russian muscle-monster who infamously killed Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) midway through 1985’s Rocky IV, inadvertently setting into motion the events that would inspire the entire Creed franchise. We learn the Siberian Bull is now training his son Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) in the ways of boxing, and the kid’s a beast. It’s here we learn just how seriously the film takes the fourth Rocky seriously, extracting from its Cold War-era jingoism and AOR tinged montages a message of learning to face your past to face your future.
Back in the USA, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has finally reached the top, becoming the World Heavyweight Champion in a low-key fight that feels strangely hollow, his victory tainted by the thought his challenger was past his prime. With Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), i.e. Unc, by his side he stresses over proposing to longtime girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an opening that gives Rocky (and fans) the chance to remember his own marriage proposal to Adrian – the first of many callbacks to another sequel, Rocky II.
With everything coming up roses for Adonis, what could the next challenge possibly look like? To plan his future, however, he’ll have to look to the past. Slimy promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) watches Viktor dismantle opponents without breaking a sweat on the Ukrainian circuit, salivating at the idea of pitting the scions of Creed and Drago in an epic clash of Shakespearean proportions. The film actually name-checks the Bard, in case the metaphor somehow sailed past you.
Seeing a way to restore dignity to his father’s legacy Adonis naturally takes the bait – foolish pride is in his blood – only to hit the wall of reality with full-force. It’s hardly a spoiler, but Adonis is nearly killed by the bigger, stronger, almost monstrously powerful Viktor Drago, narrowly escaping the same fate of his father three decades prior with a ruptured kidney and broken spirit. It’s here where Creed 2 becomes a meditation on male fragility – or male fragility in a world that appears to have moved past the fascination with expressions of pure masculinity.
Seeking change, the couple move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, and while Adonis struggles with his “loss” to Viktor, disqualified from their fight but clearly the victor (in every sense of the word), he also struggles with repairing himself “from the inside” – a process his adopted mom (Phylicia Rashad) knows a thing or two about. While promoting her burgeoning music career Bianca becomes pregnant, fearing their child will inherit her degenerative hearing disorder. Rocky, meanwhile, is absent for much of this, having distanced himself from Adonis over the decision to fight Viktor in the first place.
All the while a possible rematch with Viktor Drago remains a constant presence hanging over his head, made worse by the fact Adonis must defend his Heavyweight title or else it will be vacated. The clock is ticking, and it’s only a matter of time before things come to their inevitable clash.
Stepping in for Ryan Coogler is Steven Caple, Jr., an even younger director born three years after Rocky IV was released, and like Coolger makes his wide release debut inside the comforting arms of the Rocky franchise. After taking a backseat Stallone once again assumes screenwriting duties (with newcomer Juel Taylor), which becomes obvious once Rocky – the character – also resumes dishing out the inspirational dialogue that was largely missing from the previous film.
Neither the direction nor script have the same visceral punch of the first Creed, but this has never been a franchise about visual acrobatics or virtuoso camerawork. Only when Caple attempts to inject modern techniques like Guy Ritchie-style slow-motion bits do things feel awkward. Critically, composer Ludwig Göransson creates an appropriately modern soundscape among eclectic modern hip-hop that will surely confuse older fans – but their kids will love it. Teased throughout, he infuses elements of Bill Conti’s immortal “Going the Distance” in the appropriately titled “It’s Your Time” and the message is clear – and effective as ever.
What more can be said of the performances? The Rocky – and now Creed – films depend almost entirely on their stars’ natural charisma, and Creed 2 mines gold from the ridiculously great chemistry between Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone. Jordan imbues Adonis Creed with exactly the right level of bravado and insecurity you’d expect the son of Apollo to have, vacillating between impetuous outbursts and steely determination. He’s one of the finest actors of his generation – the perfect choice to take this franchise into the future.
And what of Stallone in his umpteeth turn as Rocky? It’s now crystal-clear his long-forgotten brain damage incurred in the justifiably long-forgotten Rocky V turned him into a living aphorism, unable to speak in anything but sage metaphors and inspirational monologues. Here is Rocky without his beloved Adrian, Paulie, Mickey or even his estranged son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), with only Adonis acting as a surrogate for family that’s no longer there.
His last turn as the Italian Stallion led to a second Oscar nomination for playing the character, a nice cap to one of the most interesting career-revivals in Hollywood history, though with self-referential lines like calling himself “a chunk of yesterday” I’m not sure Oscar gold awaits this otherwise fine turn.
Also – Stallone’s appearance cannot go without notice: here is a man looking every one of his 72 years on screen, though we know perfectly well that underneath those shabby clothes he’s still in nearly as good shape as the sweaty youngsters half his age (there’s more Rambo and Expendables coming, in case you didn’t know). Ironically, he may be the first actor to require an “old age” makeover to play someone his actual age because the real thing wouldn’t be convincing.
I honestly wasn’t expecting the return of Ivan Drago to be as impactful as it ended up, but that’s mostly due to Lundgren’s incredible, low-key performance – easily his best-ever (no joke). Using little more than scowly eyes and furrowed brow he convincingly portrays a man created to be the Soviet Union’s Frankenstein Monster, only to be abandoned by his nation, watch it crumble and lose everything – even his gold digging wife (Brigitte Nielsen, looking less frozen in time as weather beaten by it). Lundgren turns what could have been a hackneyed, fan-fiction reheating of Cold War leftovers into something far more genuinely interesting – and tragic.
Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu, playing his son Viktor, represents the complete opposite of his rival Adonis, a son of privilege who never lacked for anything: family, money, opportunity were always present, spoils leftover from a father he would never know. Conversely, Viktor has only his father Ivan, whose losses become his own. The only way out is complete victory. He must crush Adonis.
Is it wrong I was silently rooting more for Viktor? Too often stories are willing to gloss over their more psychologically interesting parts to push their Chosen Ones toward the finish line, reducing interesting “villains” to little more than necessary mile markers or challenges needing vanquished, sacrificial Goliath to David, Judas to Jesus. What helped make the Rocky II and III sequels so satisfying were their complete subversion of this trope with the unlikely friendship between Rocky and Apollo, a kernel that would form the basis of these newer films. Creed 2 saves its most heartfelt redemption for the climax, one of the few genuine surprises in a movie otherwise expertly telegraphed.
It’s a revelation that got me thinking; why do these movies continue to be so popular long after we’ve been told the story is done, or this type of filmmaking is no longer relevant? I imagine it has to do with their sincerity, a willingness to appeal to some universal truth within us that makes striving for greatness so worthwhile. That losing is OK, just as long as you’re willing to take the hits and keep moving forward. :earning how much you can take and keep moving forward.
Some people think such crass appeals to sentimentality and populism are past their prime; these people are wrong. The further the Rocky films veered from the relative normality of the multi-Oscar winning original and toward the near-mythological superhero antics of what critics labeled its nadir, Rocky IV, the more popular and crowd-pleasing they become. It was only when Stallone listened to “the critics” with the back-to-roots Rocky V did fans begin to sully on the franchise, leading to what many assumed was a minor, unsatisfying conclusion of the Rocky story.
Few professions are so overpopulated as those who struggle with telling people what they should like, opposed to what they actually do. Take last year’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, also the eighth official entry in four-decade old franchise, a movie so ashamed of its legacy it cut the familiar ‘Episode’ from its title, only to continue cutting, deconstructing and wholesale gaslighting of nearly everything that came before in the pursuit of “subverting expectations.” The critics loved it – raved over it – calling it one of, if not the best, Star Wars movie ever. The fans…not so much.
What’s worse, this gaslighting was directed at the fans themselves with the gall to expect certain things from a Star Wars movie, especially one heralding the return of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. Rather than discover new ways of playing with old toys The Last Jedi foolishly jettisoned them as obsolete. Yes, I realize the movie grossed over a billion dollars – but also a billion dollars less than its predecessor, and its ancillary earnings (e.g., toys) were disappointing. That the first Star Wars cinematic bomb came while the sourness of Jedi still lingered with fans wasn’t a surprise.
I suspect Creed 2 won’t share this fate, and will likely outperform its predecessor when the tickets are tallied. Not because its a better film (it’s not), but because it demonstrates how this transition can be more effective by playing to – and sometimes with – these expectations, not upending them for the sake of change. The Creed films, thus far, remember that appeals to sentimentality are always cheesy because they’re supposed to be. That’s why they work. When Rocky looks on a victorious Adonis with the pride of four decades on his face, you feel the sincerity and justification for sticking with him – and this franchise – throughout it all. When he tells the new champ “This is your time” we believe it because we’re sharing the victory with them. These films aren’t embarrassed by their legacy – they embrace it.
In all the ways that matter Creed 2 isn’t just a metaphor for intergenerational inheritance, both sins and pride, of its dynastic characters, but the Rocky franchise as a whole. This is a sequel to a movie over 33 years-old, literally your father’s Rocky movie. It also reminds us the sins of nations, too, can carry the same terrible weight of consequence from misplaced patriotism – that a great man once said if individual men could change “then everybody can change.” That the Creed films have been able to bridge not just these generational, but racial, gender and believability gaps is a testament to having faith in the audience to recognize that good stories, like good friends, are best when predictably sincere.
Where will this story take us next? Is there even room for it to grow now that Stallone has allowed the original series to come full circle? Perhaps, but future films should allow Adonis to create his own future, on his own terms, as he continues to learn the ropes and go the distance.