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The Rocky franchise has one that has always been near and dear to my heart, even though it was before my time to see them in the theaters. I’ve always equated Rocky to the character he plays in Rocky III and Rocky IV, that of a borderline superhero taking on borderline supervillains. His larger-than-life opponents were cartoonishly broad, but also fascinating in their villainy. Be it the brutish freight train that was Clubber Lang or the refined, advanced fighter of the future in Ivan Drago, Rocky always rose to the occasion, digging deep into his heart to overcome.
It wasn’t until I grew older that I began to appreciate the nuance and deeply emotional character study that Rocky was from Rocky, Rocky II, and even Rocky Balboa (Rocky V is optional for completionists only and will not be mentioned again). Rocky Balboa was a bum, a nobody, a man with less skill, brains, and physicality than his peers. But he had heart. He had the desire to push through any obstacle in his way just to prove he belonged, to proved that he was worth a damn. As the films grew older, and Rocky grew older, and Sylvester Stallone grew older, that general idea still remained, even though it was realized through a rotating prism of inadequacy (Rocky III), guilt (Rocky IV), and age (Rocky Balboa).
Then came Creed. We’re in the middle of the age of reboot/sequels that pay tribute to the canonical events of yesterday while introducing us to newer, younger characters that can continue the legacy. Creed came along with a full blown auteur at the helm in Ryan Coogler, a rising superstar in Michael B. Jordan, and the steady, historical hand of Sylvester Stallone to become what many consider to be a masterpiece of a film. Perfectly continuing the legacy of Rocky Balboa whilst starting the journey of young Adonis Creed, it was a film about being worth a damn, about fighting, about proving to everyone that you’re not a mistake. It was built from the same emotional character work that fueled the original Rocky, using a foundation of strong, imperfect characters, deep-seeded emotional conflict, and realistic, oftentimes painful relationships.
Then they announced that not only would Coogler not be returning to the directors chair for Creed II, but that it would be, in many ways, a direct sequel to not only Creed but also to the most unrealistic of the Rocky sequels. That put a lot of doubt in people. How could they match the emotional depth of the original film while also being directly tied to superhero Rocky chopping down the iconic Russian superhuman Drago?
I’m happy to report that Creed II carries along with it all of that same emotional depth, while also retroactively allowing the events of Rocky IV to matter even more.
Creed II picks up with Adonis “Donnie” Creed finally on top of the world. Validated as a legitimate world-class boxer, champion, and heir to the legacy of Apollo Creed, the younger Creed still lives with a chip on his shoulder. Old demons arise when the man who killed his father in the ring, Ivan Drago, returns with his son Viktor to challenge Adonis for his newly won title. Using the past between Apollo, Rocky, and Ivan to get the mental advantage on, the Drago family seeks to use Adonis as a stepping stone in returning to their former glory, which was lost when Rocky beat Ivan 30 years ago.
The strength of this franchise is in the pure star power that Ryan Coogler was able to put together for the first film. Michael B. Jordan is one of our most exciting younger actors out there, and he plays Adonis Creed as a multilayered man full of confidence that is warring with fear and pain. It’s great that he has this role and franchise to grow into, able to perfectly portray the confidence of a World Champ while still dealing with deep insecurities of anger and self worth. Equally impressive is Tessa Thompson as Bianca. More than just a person of strength and stability in Adonis’ life, she is able to convey her own fears, concerns, and love through just a look. Bianca is such an improved surrogate, one with her own motivations and passions that run in sync with Adonis.
Sylvester Stallone surprised everybody with his emotional, nuanced return to the role of Rocky Balboa in Creed, and he continues that trend here. Although not given as much to do, he still is able to hit you right in the heart as the good natured lug conflicted between his feelings. A scene with Rocky near the end of the film brings the same type of emotion bubbling up that he did in Creed, and it’s a testament and remind of just how good Stallone can be as an actor.
The biggest surprise of this film may be the layered characters and performances of Ivan and Viktor Drago by the returning Dolph Lundgren and real-life brawler Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu, respectively. The elder and younger Drago are given such impressive layering here, with Lundgren playing it as a broken man looking to reestablish his pride and honor and using his son as his vessel to do so. Munteanu is equally impressive, and although you might think he’s a one-note monster of an opponent, you’d be mistaken. In reality, he gives the younger Viktor the struggle of a son, still seemingly a young boy trying to impress his father. When he’s out of the ring, you can see his desire for approval in his eyes, almost to say “am I doing good enough, dad?”. When Ivan gets him in the ring, though, he’s like a monster unleashed, all fury and power, trying to put his opponent down. He’s an absolute physical beast, but once again his brutality is all for the sake of his father. It’s a fascinating dynamic that makes the father and son antagonists perhaps the most layered villains in a Rocky movie since the original Apollo Creed.
As good as Creed II is, it unfortunately is just not quite as good as its predecessor. Losing the directorial vision of Ryan Coogler is a blow that just cannot be fully recovered from, although director Steven Caple, Jr. proves to be fully up to the challenge of tackling the fury of in-ring action as well as the emotional rollercoaster that the story provides. While Creed had a distinct visual identity throughout the entire film, Creed II sees it in spurts. For every dramatic ring entrances, there’s a generic (but still great) boxing round. It seems like damning praise, but Caple, Jr. really does an admirable job of taking the reins from Coogler. As a director, he’s able to capture the intensity of the situation with clear, confident direction. Sure, it may lack the flair of Coogler, but it gets the job done, much like Rocky himself.
Creed II is not without faults, however. There are a few moments that feel like they’re missing a transitional scene or two. Some of the boxing scenes appear to be green-screen affairs rather than shot in an arena with a real crowd, and the film contains perhaps the first training montage that had me questioning the methods of Adonis, Rocky, and their team. Do we really think it’s a good idea to train by hitting out fighter in the stomach as hard as we can with a medicine ball? Do we really want him fighting what appears to be a former convict as his sparring partner? They are minor quibbles, but issues nonetheless.
The workman-like quality of the filmmaking fits, however, and is enhanced by the other aspects of the film. The fights in this film, while not nearly as visually dynamic as the original, offer their own differences. Punches land harder, and there were more than a few times where I found myself instinctively wincing when the blows connected. The iconic score, again provided by Ludwig Gögransson, melds the memorable Rocky-style fanfare with his established themes from Creed. His ability to smoothly meld traditional orchestral score with hip hop is a big part of what gives Creed II its beating heart, recognizing the dramatic stakes of it all while still staying true to Adonis as a character who grew up in the streets and foster facilities.
Creed II is a film that is deeply about children and their relationship with their fathers. The script, by Stallone and Juel Taylor, is so layered with personal conflict that translates into the ring, it’s hard not to get emotionally invested. Adonis is a man still living for the approval of a father he’ll never know, whilst also being thrust into the role of a father himself with the announcement of Bianca’s pregnancy. Rocky is a man struggling to come to grips with wanting to protect this new surrogate son from the mistakes he made, mistakes such as putting so much distance between himself and his real son, Robert. Lastly, the relationship between Ivan and Viktor Drago is one of deep regret. Ivan is using his son as the machine to bring back the Drago name, using emotional manipulation to point his son in the direction of Adonis. The final fight of the film is brimming with this emotion, these multiple storylines of sons wanting to please their fathers and fathers wanting to do right by their sons. It proves to be a gripping analogy to the actual fisticuffs that take center stage.
It doesn’t need to be said that I am already in the bag for as many Rocky/Creed films as they can make. I will genuinely never get tired of them. I love their ability to take these emotional, character-focused conflicts and put them in a boxing ring to quite literally fight them out. Creed II takes great care to keep the characters at the front and center, while the boxing proves to be a necessary rise in the action. Boxing films, and sports films in general, are typically metaphorical by nature. These films are always about proving your worth, overcoming the odds, proving to the world and yourself that you belong, and instead of executing it with a speech or an emotional realization, they just wind up in the final big fight. There’s something beautifully simplistic and yet also narratively complicated about pulling it off properly.
Creed II allows the characters to shed any of the weight from the previous Rocky films (without Rocky himself, obviously) and opens up the pathway to more stories with Adonis, Bianca, and Rocky that can be totally original conflicts. The struggles that come to a famous fighter like Adonis, married to a talented singer/songwriter like Bianca, with a growing family that includes Rocky as a surrogate uncle/grandfather figure to provide interesting stories in this exciting franchise for years to come.
The Final Pop
Creed II is an inevitable step down from its predecessor, but that doesn’t make it any less of a thrilling, emotionally gripping entry to this continuing franchise. It is a film filled with excellent performances and gripping conflict both internal and external. Steady direction, great music, physical fights, and layered antagonists make this a champion of a film.
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