There’s something deeply appealing about the Rocky cinematic universe. That combination of the underdog story, colorful characters, irrepressible optimism, and the anticipation of a rousing (if unrealistic) boxing match or two. They’re as simple as a kindergarten lesson plan, formulaic as Diet Pepsi, predictable as a Swiss watch, but…I just love ‘em. They’re pure cinematic catnip.
I’ve been a fan of these movies since I was a kid. Spent my wonder years with them. It’s a curious thing to see beloved characters you grew up with aging onscreen as well (as millennials no doubt experience with the “Harry Potter” movies)… they become like extended family.
The Rocky movies run the gamut in quality; a gritty Oscar darling (“Rocky”, Best Picture 1976), a family drama (“Rocky II”), a popcorn flick (“Rocky III”), a geopolitical cartoon (“Rocky IV”), and a threadbare mediocrity (“Rocky V”). With the latter films of the series (“Rocky Balboa” “Creed”), they’re back on solid footing, with some of the cartoonish melodramatics of the middle entries wisely toned down.
The Rocky universe has all of the trials of life; good fortune, bad fortune, marriage, children, unemployment, debt, health problems, death, the works. We experience them vicariously through the lovable lug Rocky Balboa (writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone), his wife Adrian (Talia Shire), brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), aged trainer Mickey (the late Burgess Meredith), and his best friend/former rival, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). While the series has killed off the characters of Mickey, Apollo, Adrian and Paulie over the years, Apollo Creed’s death is arguably the most significant, since Apollo’s legacy gave the Rocky movie series a renewed lease on life with 2015’s “Creed.”
“Creed” (directed by “Black Panther”’s Ryan Coogler) opens with Apollo’s unknowing young son Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) rescued from a dead-end existence in Los Angeles by Apollo’s wealthy widow (Phylicia Rashad), who, in a selfless act, adopts the child as her own. The young Adonis (in the tradition of Luke Skywalker) is curious about the late father he never knew, so he goes to Philadelphia to seek out the man who knew him best…Rocky Balboa. Rocky takes Adonis under his wing in a paternal, Mickey/Rocky-relationship, and eventually trains him to fight.
Like Rocky, Donnie falls in love… not with a shy pet-shop girl, but with a hearing-impaired, determined young woman named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is making her own way in the world as a musician (thanks to hearing aid technology). With Rocky in his corner and new love in his life, Donnie rises up in the boxing world. It’s also around this time that Donnie begins to embrace the family name and legacy. Meanwhile Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, just as Donnie signs up to face the world heavyweight champion; a nasty tempered British bruiser. Rocky survives his cancer, and continues to mentor young Donnie in the ways of the forc–er, boxing. Like the first film, the big title fight ends with a split decision going to the champion, but (like the original “Rocky” nearly 40 years earlier) the hungry-for-more Donnie is on his way.
“Creed” is, for all intent and purposes, a soft-reboot of the entire Rocky franchise.
A Rocky IV sequel?
Rumors began a couple years ago that “Creed II” would continue the storyline of one of my least favorite of the Rocky movies; the ridiculously excessive “Rocky IV.” Rocky IV is the most synthetic, simple-minded and embarrassingly dated entry in the series. It featured cartoonish, “Boris Badinoff”-style Russians and a black & white jingoism that seemed more suited to a Chuck Norris movie than the earlier, earthier Rocky flicks. Rocky takes on a towering Russian named Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) after the Soviet boxing machine kills Rocky’s former rival and best friend Apollo Creed during a simple exhibition bout in Las Vegas. Agreeing to fight in a lavish, non-sanctioned bout in Moscow (on Christmas Day, no less), Rocky eventually defeats the monosyllabic, monstrous Russian as the once-hostile Soviet crowd (including a Gorbachev-lookalike) warms up to the Philly southpaw.
Giving an “if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change” victory speech that directly contradicts everything we’ve see before, Rocky goes home (literally) draped in an American flag. The underdog Rocky of 1976 had been replaced by a superhuman Cold Warrior, capable of out punching Soviet-robots and god knows what else.
When I heard Creed II would be taking up the threads of this storyline? I became worried that the enjoyable Rocky-reboot “Creed” might be a one-off experience.
Well, I was wrong.
**** RINGSIDE SPOILERS!! *****
“Creed II” begins with Adonis nervously proposing to Bianca, just after he wins the heavyweight title. The opening has a similar structure to “Rocky III” (though a bit more measured), with the young newlywed Adonis “Donnie” Creed becoming an ascending star in the boxing world. Bianca is also ascendent in the music world, forcing the young couple to relocate to Los Angeles to further her recording ambitions. Leaving Rocky and Philly behind, the two get closer to Donnie’s adopted mother Mary Ann (the returning Phylicia Rashad), who also realizes (via that maternal sixth sense) that Bianca is pregnant.
Meanwhile, the disgraced former Russian heavyweight Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is seen training his beefy son Viktor (Florian Munteano) in what appears to be revenge ploy against his old nemesis, Rocky Balboa. Arriving in Philly, the elder Drago shows up late one night unannounced at Rocky’s restaurant (named Adrian’s, after his late wife). Rocky and Drago have a tense chat about things past, as Drago tells Rocky the high price he paid for defeat. Even Drago’s wife (Brigitte Nielsen, real-life ex-wife of Stallone) left him. Now he proposes Rocky let Adonis fight his son; a new proxy war… no longer East vs. West, but father vs. spiritual father; a rematch of their 1985 bout, but fought through their sons. Rocky adamantly refuses.
The scene of the older, bitter Drago speaking to the man who toppled him gives the events of “Rocky IV” a strange new gravitas and reality they never had before. It makes the silly, Cold War-hokum of “Rocky IV” seem like a modern myth, as we experience the fallout from those days. The price of the ‘glorious’ past being paid for in the bitter present.
Against the advice of Rocky, Donnie agrees to the match between he and Viktor Drago. Rocky warns Donnie that the elder Drago broke “things in me that ain’t never been fixed.” The young Creed doesn’t care; he is determined to fight the proxy war with the son of the man who killed his father, largely because it is what everyone expects of him. Donnie is fighting this ‘war’ for all the wrong reasons.
Like all fights in the middle of a Rocky movie, it does not end well. Viktor Drago unleashes all kinds of pent-up hell against his American rival, breaking Donnie’s ribs (as Rocky once broke his father’s). In a bit of final cathartic rage, Viktor also disqualifies himself with an illegally placed punch after Donnie is down. Viktor Drago clearly wins the fight, but is denied victory by his disqualification. Donnie is technically still champ, but he’s also a broken man.
In a scene calling back to the opening of “Rocky II”, we see a bruised, battered Donnie in the hospital, angry at both his loss as well as the sheer damage to his own body. With Bianca’s okay, Rocky meets with Donnie in his room, but the angry young man has nothing to say to his old trainer who refused to stand in his corner for this match. Hat in hand, Rocky leaves.
During his lengthy recovery, Bianca gives birth and a nervous Donnie embraces fatherhood. Learning that his newborn daughter suffers the same hearing loss as her mother, he also realizes that his life is incomplete; he has to fight Drago again to make things right.
Rocky takes a train out to L.A. to see Donnie (“three days”), promising to be in the young man’s corner this time. Rocky doesn’t want to suffer the estrangement from Donnie that he has with his own son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), and the two guys patch things up…with Rocky vowing to help him defeat Drago; the same vow the late Apollo made to Rocky to help him defeat the vicious “Clubber Lang” (Mr. T) in “Rocky III. “ Bianca gives her husband an Adrian-style pep talk, but with a pinch of arsenic (“You better not lose…”).
Echoing Rocky’s rustic Siberian training regiment in “Rocky IV,” Rocky takes the young man out to the Nevada desert to train in the most brutal, primitive conditions possible to toughen him up for the punishment to come. What Rocky/Creed movie (or any sports movie) would be complete without a rousing training montage, right?
The matchup in Moscow echoes some of the overstuffed visual stylings of “Rocky IV” (there’s a million searchlights, so help me) and some of its over-the-top theatrics as well. The near-deadly fight goes on far longer than such a bout would go on in the real world, but that’s par for the course in these movies. Yes, it’s very unrealistic, but it’s also rousing entertainment.
Suffering knockdown after knockdown, young Adonis summons his inner ‘eye of the tiger’ and channels that determination into his fighting, eventually (and repeatedly) knocking down the giant Russian who continually gets back up before the count, despite the pounding he’s taken.
It is at this point, in the final round, that the movie delivers its single greatest surprise (to me, anyway)… the elder Drago, realizing the near-fatal abuse his son is taking in the ring, throws in the towel, thus ending the match in order to save his son. Ivan no longer wants to see his own son pay for his past disgrace; the price is too high. It’s an act that Rocky deeply regrets not doing to save Apollo’s life 30 years earlier.
The proxy war is over. A father’s love wins over bloodlust for victory. Rocky visits his estranged son Robert (and new grandchild) while Adonis visits his famous father’s grave for a chat. Ancient scores are settled. All is well.
Once again, another movie set in the Rocky-verse ends with indefatigable optimism and closure.
Whereas “Rocky IV” was a simple-minded Cold War proxy battle fought with boxing gloves, “Creed II” is about living up to the dreams and expectations of our lineage. The ‘war’ in this film isn’t about nations; it’s about fathers and sons. With Apollo gone, Rocky is Adonis’ spiritual father… and as we later see with Ivan Drago and Viktor, both fathers truly care about their sons. It’s not just about seeing their sons settle their old conflicts.
The most surprising thing the movie delivered (besides character depth and emotion) was its ability to reframe the glaringly silly events of “Rocky IV” into something a bit more realistic (as realistic as these movies get, anyway…). The former “Siberian Express” Ivan Drago has gone from a 7 ft. tall, monolithic Russian giant into a more (literal) human-sized, broken man who is now using his child for a shot at personal redemption. The formerly two-dimensional Dolph Lundgren turns in a surprisingly good performance, while still maintaining his character’s minimal verbiage. Real-life fighter Florian Muntaneo, as Drago’s son Viktor, also gives a decent performance given his material.
The theme of fathers and sons echoes throughout the film in many ways…. hell, you almost expect to hear Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” playing at some point. Adonis Creed settles his father’s old score. Ivan Drago lets go of his own desire for revenge to save his son. Rocky eventually summons the courage to seek out his own estranged son. Fathers and sons are the new pawns and players of this film.
For balance, we also see a maternal bent to the story as well. Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad) is welcomed back into her son’s life, as she becomes a grandmother. Rashad has a dignity and gravitas that quietly but firmly establishes her as the matriarch of the Creed family. No question.
There is also the frightening prospect of parenthood with Donnie and Bianca welcoming their newborn daughter Amara into the world. Amara suffers the same hearing condition as her mother, but (with a well-placed Rocky pep talk) Donnie overcomes his initial fear for his daughter’s future, replacing it with optimism and love.
Arguably “all the domestic stuff” (as Rocky’s former manager Mickey once put it) could be a demerit to those who prefer boxing action over drama. Personally, I prefer to see action only with characters I am emotionally invested in; flesh-and-blood mortals who are more than just action figures playing on a toy shelf. Despite occasional minor lapses into the maudlin, “Creed II” handles both the dramatics and the action well enough, with the aid of its solid cast.
Take a bow.
I’ve been a fan of Tessa Thompson (“Bianca”) since “Dear White People”, and am glad to see her doing so many diverse and interesting projects (including last year’s “Annihilation” and HBO’s “Westworld”). If I had one teensy complaint, it’s about her character’s musical stylings…they sound like a somewhat slicker Yoko Ono, with nasal wailings and non-rhythmic accompaniments. Just my personal taste in music, I suppose. Hardly a dealbreaker, and no fault of the brilliant Thompson.
Stallone can do Rocky Balboa in his sleep at this point, and it’s always nice to see that character again. Despite the strength (and 42 year history) of that character, I’m happy to report that Stallone’s Rocky doesn’t overshadow the film. Make no mistake; this movie may be set in the Rocky-verse, but it’s the Creed movie series now. The torch has been passed.
Which brings me to Michael B. Jordan, whose natural charisma and charm made him the MVP of both “Black Panther” and the “Creed” movies; not many actors can take both the former Rocky franchise and a big budget Marvel movie and make them their own. He does so seemingly without effort. Jordan even made the recent, ill-conceived HBO remake of “Fahrenheit 451” watchable. He has the looks, charm and physicality to play damn near anything he chooses. It may yet be relatively early in Jordan’s career, but I could see him having the versatile-yet-iconic career of a latter-day Paul Newman.
Summing it up.
“Creed II” is more unabashedly sentimental than its immediate predecessor, and there are more of Bill Conti’s original “Rocky” soundtrack cues sprinkled throughout as well…. and I’m perfectly okay with that. This movie fully embraces its Rocky roots. Director Steven Caple Jr. does an effective job of re-orchestrating an admittedly unoriginal story into something genuinely and earnestly entertaining. The result is more of a direct sequel to (or quasi-remake of) “Rocky IV,” but with a lot more heart and soul, and none of the jingoistic fervor.
“Creed II” offers a few nice surprises in a franchise all but trademarked by its own predictability.