Creed II goes the distance
I love watching sports movies. I don’t love watching sports. I grew up in a household in which football was always on TV, but try as I might, I just couldn’t get into it. Still can’t. This is because sports movies are guaranteed to deliver maximum drama, while for the most part, televised sports are pretty mundane. Sure, a level of fandom adds drama for those willing to do the work, but the fact of the matter is that very few games in any given sport are notable. Without the personal stakes that sports movies work to build, the game is just a game. Two teams playing for points.
The one sport I do enjoy, however, is boxing. Having had a background with martial arts, I understand the strategy of the sport to a degree. That, and a lifelong fandom of Jackie Chan have made it so few things please me more than watching two fighters slug it out. Even the most boring bouts have someone getting hit in the face, and I guess that’s enough for me. Don’t get me wrong, boxing is just like any other sport in how often the matches aren’t legendary. Very, very few are even worth watching, but those of us who care for the sport are happy to roll the dice on tonight’s bout being the next Rumble in the Jungle.
Enter the Rocky franchise. For four decades Sylvester Stallone and a large stable of co-creatives have used every possible permutation of win/loss/draw to milk weepy-but-brawny feels out of Rocky Balboa’s story. Some are better than others, some are unintentionally hilarious, but all are such feel-good rah rah excitement that it’s hard to hate on them. Every single entry ends with a fight in which everything is on the line, and every single time someone gets punched in the face. Even at its absolute worst (Rocky IV) it works! The drama is there. The face punches are there. The cynicism is not. These are earnest, warm-hearted movies, and I’m a sucker for every last one of them.
I love the Rocky movies so so so much.
I love Creed even more. No lie, Ryan Coogler’s 2015 sequelboot is easily the best in the entire series. From the filmmaking prowess on display, to the deeply felt thematic resonance, to the pitch perfect (and Oscar nominated) performances, Creed might be the finest sequel I’ve ever seen. This franchise, now twice rebooted, represents the essence Rocky Balboa in the purest way imaginable: no matter what you throw at it, including time itself, it just won’t go down. How fitting that the second time Stallone was Oscar nominated for playing the Italian Stallion, he didn’t win...but he went the distance.
Before we go deep into Creed II, let’s go through the results of each film’s final bout, and what it means to the characters.
Rocky - Rocky loses, but he goes the distance, winning Adrian’s heart and his own pride!
Rocky II - Rocky wins, taking home the world championship and securing his legacy!
Rocky III - Rocky takes a fight he can’t win, loses, and then rematches to victory, proving to himself that his career wasn’t a fluke and that nobody but nobody talks smack to Adrian!
Rocky IV - Apollo Creed dies in the ring and now Rocky wants revenge. He gets his revenge by winning, and his demonstration of pure heart ends the Cold War.
Rocky V - Rocky doesn’t box, but he does win in an ill-advised street fight (which a stronger movie would have had him refusing to partake in). This makes his son like him more or something.
Rocky Balboa - Rocky takes a novelty match against a fighter a fraction of his age. He loses, but goes the distance, proving to himself that he’s old, but not that old. This makes his son like him more or something.
Creed - Adonis Creed loses, but he goes the distance, giving him self worth and a sense of identity. He reckons with his existence as both an illegitimate child, and a black man who was brought at a young age to some level of privilege. Through this he decides to embrace his father’s name, but forge a legacy of his own.
Is there any other way to hinge the themes of an an eighth (yes, EIGHTH) Rocky movie on a sport with just three potential outcomes?
Creed II is not the masterpiece its predecessor was, so if you go in expecting something as thematically rich as what Ryan Coogler and his team brought to the screen (in the only entry not written by Stallone), you’re gonna be disappointed. Both stylistically and in terms of plot mechanics, this is not really a Creed sequel... but it IS a Rocky sequel. In fact, the plot is pretty much identical to Rocky III, but made with the ingredients of Rocky IV. So if you’re like me, you’re going to make peace with its deficiencies and love it for what it is, while silently lamenting what it maaaaybe could’ve been. I say “maybe” because I really don’t know how much further this back end of the franchise can go without leaning too heavily on formula. Even Creed used some old tricks. It just did so with such style and flavor that the tropes remained hidden. Now with Coogler’s style absent, and the man who reworked the plot so many times before picking up the pen once again, said formula becomes readily apparent.
The movie begins with Adonis Creed following in Rocky’s footsteps by winning the heavyweight championship of the world (we’re basically skipping Rocky II in Adonis’ parallel arc). Things are good. He’s engaged to Bianca, with whom he is expecting his first child. Rocky has beaten cancer with little fanfare, much in the same way he beat blindness and brain damage back in the day. Meanwhile, just a few time zones away, Rocky’s rival and Apollo’s executioner, Ivan Drago, is training his son to fight, hoping to restore honor to the Drago name. An opportunistic promoter sees this storm a-brewin’ and decides that what the world wants to see is a match between Creed Jr. and Drago Jr.
It is in the depiction of Ivan Drago where the movie is at its weakest. Unfortunately for the Creed series, it sits on the foundation of Rocky IV, which fails at being anything but a series of montages linking a handful of piss-poor characterizations (it’s still a blast - relax). Stallone’s new script carries an awful disdain for Drago that mirrors the jingoistic dismissal that Rocky IV regarded as American heroism. It doesn’t really work, and I found myself unsure of whether I’m supposed to see Drago as a villain outright, or a misunderstood man in unfortunate circumstances. He does receive an arc, which I appreciated by the end, but it still felt limited. The same can’t be said for Drago Jr., who receives no characterization at all.
So while there are wonky attempts at maybe humanizing the Dragos, these Russian bears serve the same functionality as Clubber Lang did in Rocky III - to be a terrifying physical presence that brings personal stakes to the fight through the ego of the protagonist. And from here, Creed II essentially becomes Rocky III.
Adonis agrees to fight Drago (Rocky agrees to fight Clubber Lang). Rocky refuses to train Adonis (Mickey refuses to train Rocky). It doesn’t go well (It doesn’t go well).
The bulk of the film is Adonis trying to regain his edge; to bring back that burning desire to win, which we all know is called the “Eye of the Tiger” even though Stallone’s script takes hilarious pains not to refer to it as such.
And that’s it. It’s Rocky III, complete with a training montage that rips.
But when I look back at the entire original series, it’s Rocky III which has the most rewatchability - the most vigorous level of fun. So if Creed II is going to ape any of its predecessors, I’m happy it’s this one.
Director Steven Caple Jr. (The Land) has put together a strong visual product. The fight scenes are directed with clarity (bolstered by some rib-shattering sound design), even if none of it matches the artistic majesty of Coogler’s one-take fight. I guess that’s really the biggest issue with Creed II: Coogler’s absence is felt across the board, but that’s understandable. When you’re standing in the shadow of a modern classic, it’s pretty much impossible to live up to it. But it goes the distance!
Stallone has never been one to phone it in, and his script, as silly as it can be, is vintage Rocky. The performances are fantastic as well. The relationship between Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is more satisfying than Rocky and Adrian’s romance ever was. This is because Jordan is a more dynamic actor than Stallone, and the characterization of Bianca is infinitely more thorough than Adrian’s. Adrian served to be Rocky’s prize, the winning of which was always determined entirely by Rocky. Adrian doesn’t have much agency, and Rocky never ever listened to her advice, ever ever ever. Bianca has tons of agency, and Thompson, as always, brings the fire. With Bianca, she has reinvented the sports movie love interest. And by giving her character a passion (her burgeoning music career but with the added drama of slow-onset hearing loss) we get a woman with a story of her own. Much preferred to her just a piece of arm candy for our hero.
To further illustrate how superior the integration of Bianca’s story is to Adrian’s, I need only point to a groaner of a line from Rocky II, in which Rocky is explaining to Adrian why he needs to fight, despite her urging that he stop:
“I never asked you to stop being a woman, so please don’t ask me to stop being a man.”
When tasked with making the same argument, Adonis is much more convincing, and it’s all because of Bianca’s strong characterization. I don’t have the line word for word, but basically he appeals to her passion, a passion which, given her medical condition, must be pursued with urgency. Could anyone get her to stop making music? Of course not. And nobody will ever convince Adonis to stop fighting.
Stallone is once again fantastic as Rocky. It’s a less demanding role physically than it was back in the day, but in terms of evoking emotion, the Creed leg of the franchise has given him quite the workout (and given us a reminder that Mr. Balboa is indeed a character - not just Stallone in boxing gloves). Dolph Lundgren is as good as one could expect for a character who exists mostly as an image rather than as a real person, but he delivers everything required of him, while still registering as the same Drago from so many moons ago. His son, played by Florian Munteanu, isn’t given much to do besides being big and threatening, but man is he big and threatening. The dude is HUGE.
“My son will break your boy” says Drago while I squeeeee with delight in the theater.
There are plenty of Easter eggs hidden amidst the action for hardcore fans. Some of the more obvious choices include the many uses of the phrase “break you” as well as some surprising cameos. Bianca’s wardrobe is very clearly a modernized take on Adrian’s outfits, while much of the score consists of melodies from Bill Conti’s original fanfare. Yes, the hip-hop sound brought in by the prior entry remains, but it’s not the central sound anymore. This is a shame, given that the music of Creed was instrumental in pushing the franchise into the modern era (and is frequently my gym soundtrack), but at the same time, I could watch paint dry to the sound of Gonna Fly Now and still be moved, so I ain’t complaining.
In the end, the win/lose/draw framework is once again effectively tied to the story, and it’s done in another clever way I could never have expected. Much like every Rocky movie, this could either be the final entry, or the jumping off point for another one. I’ll take either.
So no, the promise of Creed has not been fulfilled, but really, could it ever have been? It’s hard to make lightning strike twice, and at this point the series already has. Having eaten up all of the lightning, I’m happy to watch my favorite franchise crap a little thunder.
Creed II opens in Philly theaters today.