I’m sure I deserve a hundred lashes or something awful for what I’m about to admit. Up until last week, I had never seen any of the Rocky films. Yes, for the longest time, I had never seen one of the most popular American movie series ever. While I never saw them in full, I had seen bits and pieces here and there, understanding all of the references just from having them beat into my brain from various pop culture. I just never got around to them, but with the release of Creed II, I wanted to see it in a theater. So, I put myself through a Rocky ringer, if you will. I watched all six Rocky films and Creed within 72 hours and it became a minor obsession of mine for a week. I’ve always noticed the massive impact the Rocky character had on people, particularly my dad and my brother, but after watching all of the films, I fully understood why Stallone’s character is so important to people. 

Creed II takes place three years after the events of the last film, with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) finally winning the Heavyweight Champion of the World boxing title after a successful career. He finds his next big challenge when Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) former opponent Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) approaches him to fight his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu). Since Drago killed Adonis’ father in the ring decades prior, Adonis looks at this as way to get retribution for his father’s death. Rocky is reluctant to train him for the fight, though, fearing that history may just repeat itself.

When Creed came out in 2015, it was the seventh installment in a 40-year-old series, while also serving as a soft reboot to keep the series ongoing. Nobody really expected it to be so good, but with director Ryan Coogler at the director’s and screenwriter’s helms, he crafted a visually striking and stylish story that retained all of the heart and emotion the series was known for. After watching Creed recently, I was disappointed that he wouldn’t be directing the second installment, with Steven Caple, Jr. taking the directing reigns this round. Unfortunately, a lot of that style that imbued the last film was really lost this time around. The cinematography is still absolutely gorgeous, with some excellent lighting and staging, but overall, it felt less creative and fresh. There were moments, such as Adonis entering the ring for his big fight, that should feel exciting and inspiring, but mostly came off as flat. The direction to the boxing scenes is a less intense, with more emphasis on slow motion to show the heavy hits instead of just raw brutality. It was all excellent fighting, though, with realistic choreography and bone crunching sound mixing that made me wince with every punch.

Where Caple, Jr. clearly succeeds is directing actors, with our main performers of Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, and Tessa Thompson returning, all just as fantastic as last time. Michael B. Jordan is simply a terrific actor and with his vastly superior range to Stallone, his character is able to be developed in much different ways. That’s not a slight to Stallone, as he’s still excellent and I have massive respect for him as an actor and filmmaker, but I like that we’re now following a totally different character played by an actor with a completely different style. It allows the franchise to move forward with some freshness, but still maintaining the heart and soul. Adonis goes through a lot in this film, both physically and emotionally, all with Bianca (Thompson) by his side. Just like Rocky and Adrian’s relationship in the original films, Adonis’ relationship with Bianca is the emotional glue that holds all of the punching and sweating together. Normally the “domestic scenes” in these types of movies are the weakest, but it’s the reason we keep coming back, because we can connect to these characters.

It really helps that Sylvester Stallone is still around with the series, because it’s his gigantic heart that keep it all afloat. While he’s not a credited screenwriter on Creed, the only time in the series for him, he still had a large advisory role in the process. With his old school sensibilities and Coogler’s polished direction, they were the perfect combination to update the Rocky franchise for the modern age. Stallone is actually a credited writer here, along with Juel Taylor, and they do an excellent job on expanding the story elements introduced in the last film. It does get a little bit derivative and predictable, but I think that’s kind of unavoidable for a movie series at this point. What matters is the heart, which is still all there, possibly bigger than ever. All of the familiar beats, like the obligatory training montage, are there, but they have that same attitude of “going the distance” that the rest have. I love that we can still get the classic training sequence, but it’s updated, complete with a new, just as inspiring soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, that perfectly echoes Bill Conti’s iconic score.

Even then, there were still a few surprises to be found, especially during the climax, where I was genuinely shocked and invested at the outcome. The biggest appeal to longtime fans of the series was the return of iconic Rocky IV villain Ivan Drago. I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I found Rocky IV to be the weakest in the series. It’s really nothing more than 80’s anti-communist propaganda with absolutely no depth, chockful of awful montages and 80’s excess. I found it hilariously bad and was curious to see how those events will be followed up here. Well, the story with Drago and his son here totally justifies Rocky IV’s existence, adding much more to that character and those events. Drago was just a caricature in Rocky IV. Literally nothing more than an opponent for Rocky to fight. Now he’s an actual character with some pathos to him. We find out that after Rocky beat him, he was completely abandoned by his country and his family. With nothing left but his son Viktor, he trained him from childhood for the sole purpose of reclaiming the Drago name. It turns out Lundgren can actually be a pretty great actor if you let him, nailing every scene he’s in. He’s stone cold serious the entire time, but you can see the love and devotion he has for his son. Real life boxer Florian Munteanu is a good foil to him, as he’s frustrated at his dad’s persistence and emotional, echoing Drago’s treatment from his government in Rocky IV. They are easily the best antagonists in the series since Apollo Creed.

Themes of fatherhood are prevalent throughout, with Adonis and Rocky, Adonis and Bianca expecting a child, and Drago and his son and that’s ultimately why these Rocky movies work so well. They explore simple, yet universal, human themes that anybody can connect to on some level. When the film was wrapping up and fully driving home the fatherhood theme, I couldn’t help but think of my older brother (who is a father of three) and my father, who I was watching the film with. They, my brother especially, were two of the biggest Rocky fans I ever knew growing up, so watching this new installment with them for the first time while exploring these familial themes made it especially poignant for me, eliciting genuine tears. Being the eighth film in the series, Creed II is undoubtedly going to be feel derivative, but really, that’s all a heart does. It just keeps on beating and beating until it can’t anymore. Fitting how the real-life circumstances of the franchise perfectly mirror the story.


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