The Rocky movies changed with the times, for better or worse. Rocky IV was a far cry from the humble Oscar winning drama of Rocky, but in 1985 it was exactly what America needed (and the movie where my friend invited me to play Rocky and then punched me in the face). For Creed II to do a Creed style dramatic exploration of the aftermath of pure ‘80s cheese is a bold move, and a successful one.
The format of the Rocky sequels was to open with the climactic fight of the previous movie. The prologue to Creed II is not the climactic fight of Creed I. It’s something better. We meet the Dragos today as exiles from Russia.
The history makes the mere presence of the Dragos in Philadelphia powerful. Rocky had to fight Ivan in Russia because of security issues. Now they’re just an old tourist and his son, nobody notices them but they’re on Rocky’s home turf. Now when we see clips from Rocky IV, that’s Adonis watching his father die. There’s even a callback to Rocky’s marriage proposal in Rocky II, giving Rocky the chance to rewrite it a tad more eloquently.
Having accepted his father’s last name, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is at the top of his boxing career having won the heavyweight title. He proposes to Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and they move to L.A. Meanwhile, promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) has been waiting with Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) in the Ukraine waiting to challenge Adonis.
Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) sees through this for what it is. There’s no upside for Adonis. The Dragos get publicity and a way back into boxing. Plus, it was Apollo’s decision to fight Ivan and he shouldn’t have wanted to. Not to mention, Marcelle is just in it for the money. This is a lucrative package. Rocky doesn’t even mention that part, but Adonis sees it. He changes his mind pretty quickly though.
Here’s the thing. Whether Adonis should fight Viktor or not, the audience needs to see this. Yes, Adonis shouldn’t take the bait. He should manage his career and fight worthy contenders, not circus spectacles. What next? He’ll fight any wild card if a savvy promoter hurts his ego?
It also occurs to me that maybe fighting is not the best way to teach angry men not to indulge their volatile emotions. That’s not really in the movie. It’s just my extrapolation of the personality type that makes decisions the way Marty McFly does when someone calls him chicken. It is really easy for Ivan to get a rise out of Adonis. He only has to say one line.
What is in the film is the idea that winning the title still doesn’t make Adonis feel like a champion. That is the battle everyone faces as they rise to the top of whatever field they’re in. Being declared champion or the boss still never satisfies the personal insecurities we all have. There is always self doubt, and there is always someone antagonizing you to challenge your position.
Adonis has to tell his mother he’s taking the Drago fight. Can you imagine the magnitude of that? It’s one thing to have a concerned mother. When it’s the actual history of Rocky IV, how can you even broach the subject with Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), widow of Apollo Creed?
Creed II is about more than the fight though. It gets to the fight we came here for sooner than you may expect, and then it goes further. That’s a smart and savvy move. Sell the movie on the sons of Creed and Drago finishing their fathers’ battle. Then explore what’s really at work here. The movie gets past the bravado and finds a mature reason to press on, and still has the same rousing cheers as Rocky IV.
The Drago subplot is solid, perhaps a tad briefer than we might have liked to see, but makes each scene count for their narrative. Getting to see Ivan Drago as a father is powerful. It’s definitely the B story, but a strong one.
There is a little bit more fan service than there was in Creed, but again, the tonal shift between Rocky IV and Creed II gives those callbacks all new context.
Oh, there are training montages. This time Viktor is doing gritty makeshift training in the Ukraine. Gone are his father’s fancy Russian technology.
One thing Creed II does not get into is politics. Rocky IV was a total Cold War fantasy. Now that we have a different relationship with Russia, that could have been interesting to explore too, but Creed II can’t be everything.
Creed was exemplary of the Franchise Fred philosophy. A long running franchise can correct mistakes of its past. I found the death of Apollo Creed to be a cheap gimmick in Rocky IV, but now it becomes the powerful backstory of a new character Adonis Creed. And now the cartoonish music video of Rocky IV can be dealt with in a serious drama. Creed II also makes a great Rocky VIII and Rocky IV: Part II. Franchise Fred approves all three.