Round 2, Really Round 8, Leans Heavily on Round 4 – Creed II

Before we get into the actual plot and artistic elements of Creed II, there are two things I have to point out that bugged me in the film that have no real bearing on the story, but are just betrayals of fact. And also, as this was a good, fun, movie, I want to get the negative stuff out of the way quickly.

First off, I’ve been a fan of boxing for most of my life, due in large part to the character of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), but as much as I love the character, he’s part of the problem with the sport overall. There’s nothing wrong with him, but this franchise, like every other great boxing movie, makes the sport seem a lot more exciting than it really is in the modern age.

The film has a character in Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), an unscrupulous promoter who stages press events to pick the main fight, but in private laughs it off as just being “part of the game.” Similarly, when Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) finally wins his championship belt as the film begins, he gets criticized for fighting a champion past his prime, as if contending for a title means he’s only taking cupcake fights.

But that’s the problem with the real sport as it stands today. Shameless carnival barkers like Don King run – and rig – the sport, and the top-rated fighters, particularly Floyd Mayweather, try to claim all-time greatness despite the fact that they never fight a competitive bout. Three years ago, my roommate spent the ungodly $100 for the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight that we wanted to see for over a decade, and it was the most boring fight I’ve ever seen, in large part because Pacquiao’s odometer was well beyond what it needed to be for him to have a legitimate shot, and two because Mayweather’s entire style is simply to jab and shuffle his feet because he’s a freak of nature with an insane reach advantage. The Rocky films show us tight, exciting fights where hard hits are traded back and forth among equally-skilled opponents, which I love. In reality, boxing hasn’t been nearly that good since the last time we saw the likes of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) on the big screen. So really, the problem’s not with Rocky, but rather that the real sport can’t match the excitement of the films, and it’s a shame that the best boxing matches for the last 30 years are always on screen.

The second gripe is about the integration of real-life sports media personalities. It always sounds disingenuous when the likes of Linda Cohn, Max Kellerman, and Jim Lampley are inserted into these movies, because it unnecessarily blurs the lines of reality. But more importantly, because I used to work at ESPN, I know a lot about how the sausage is made, and as such I have an impulse to dissect the use of these people and images to see if it’s done correctly.

For me, the biggest error was not in the commentary, but in the bottom line ticker. First off, it shows the Cleveland Browns leading a game. It’s not unheard of, in fact they destroyed the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday. But it’s exceedingly rare, and the use here stretches plausibility. More importantly, the ticker makes note of a hockey game between the Philadelphia Flyers and a New York team (can’t remember if it was the Islanders or Rangers), which was tied and in overtime. Again, not unheard of, but you know what is? The fact that both of these games (as well as an NBA game) are all listed as airing on ESPN2 at the same time! Three games airing at once? No. An NHL game on any ESPN channel? Not since the 2005 lockout. I know it is the tiniest of nits to pick, but I nearly got fired from the network multiple times for questioning such minutiae, so forgive me for indulging myself now and yelling, “HAW-HAW!” in a Nelson Muntz voice.

Okay, on to the movie. Like Ralph Breaks the Internet, this sequel is not as good as its predecessor, but it is worthy of the franchise’s legacy, is worthy of your eyes and money, and is certainly a crowd-pleaser.

Three years after the last film, Adonis Creed has racked up a nice winning streak, complete with a victory over the new champion to gain the WBC Heavyweight belt. Life is good. He’s got a good career, he’s making good money, and he proposes to his girlfriend Bianca (have I mentioned that Tessa Thompson should just be in everything?), who we later learn is pregnant.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Ivan Drago, disgraced and somewhat exiled after his loss to Rocky in Rocky IV, trains his son Viktor (Romanian boxer Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu, who doesn’t seem to have a publicly available pro record but gets a lot of attention for his training regimen on Instagram) in the slums of a ruined city, watching him dominate every opponent he comes across. Viktor is such a hard-nosed knockout artist that none of his fights have gotten out of the fourth round. With the help of the shady Buddy Marcelle, Viktor calls out Adonis, looking to set up a highly dramatic fight between the son of Apollo Creed and the son of the man who killed him in the ring.

Despite the fact that Adonis never knew his father, and despite the fact that everyone in his corner – Rocky, Bianca, his mother Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad, who does a fine job but I’m still mad at her for wrecking my graduation… a story for another time) – tells him not to take the bait for a fight he’s not ready for, Adonis feels his pride, integrity, and family name are on the line. So he accepts the fight, with predictable consequences, humbling him before a climactic rematch, and alienating him temporarily from his loved ones.

It’s a very formulaic approach, but the formula works, so there’s no reason to mess with it too much. Stallone gives just as great a performance as he did last time out, and that earned him a Supporting Actor nomination. I doubt he’ll repeat the feat this time, but I wouldn’t be angry if he did. Michael B. Jordan continues to be one of the most versatile actors of his generation, and the paces he puts himself through training for these movies continues to be astounding. Yes, the montages are standard issue these days, but they’re just as compelling now as they were 40 years ago.

There are some interesting bits of camera work as well. Steven Caple, Jr. (The Land) takes over directing duties from Ryan Coogler, who was busy directing Black Panther (though he’s still credited as a Producer), so the fantastic unbroken shots in the boxing ring don’t make a repeat appearance here, but what Caple adds is a capable intimacy with the fighters. A common tactical move in boxing is grappling and holding your opponent to make it harder for them to hit you in close quarters. It helps a fighter regain their composure and regulate their breathing and vision, helping them recover from a hard hit. Here too, Caple’s camera remains very tight on the action as it intensifies, giving the audience some much needed breaks in the action. Additionally, a steady cam is harnessed to Munteanu in his fights, giving us a first-person perspective as Viktor delivers his deadly blows. There are times where it really feels like he’s hitting you.

As far as the overall characterization and themes, I only saw two notable flaws. One is that, in every previous Rocky/Creed film, you always got a sense of who the opponent was as a person. Character development was very important throughout the franchise, even for the more cartoonish adversaries like Clubber Lang. Here though, Viktor Drago’s development is secondary and vicarious through Ivan.

It’s fascinating and compelling to see how far Drago’s world fell out from under him after Rocky beat him, and I think it’s an essential part of the story, but it came at the expense of Viktor’s story. Viktor himself barely speaks until after the midway point of the movie. In a way he’s just another machine in Ivan’s bygone Soviet arsenal rather than his own character.

This is a shame, because there are hints of personality beats hidden just under the surface. He is exposed to some very Spartan training exercises, and at times feels like a pawn in his father’s larger scheme. He storms out of a fancy government dinner when it becomes clear to him that the people praising him and Ivan now are the same ones who abandoned them when he lost, giving a forceful tirade in the hallway that comes the closest to fleshing him out. There’s a good scene early on where the Dragos fly to Philadelphia to challenge Adonis, and they walk by the art museum. Ivan looks on in disgust as people run up the fabled steps (a local activity that I’ve done a few times – it’s exhausting but fun, and a huge part of the Philly identity), and he sneers at Rocky’s statue. But what does that mean to Viktor? I wanted so much to know what all this means for Viktor as well as Ivan. It would have only made the fights have higher stakes and made the characters richer.

Secondly, one of the iconic moments of Rocky IV is the triumphant, hopeful, and let’s be honest, cheesy speech that Rocky gives after the fight. The man basically tries to end the Cold War right then and there by telling the home audience in the former USSR that we need to come together as people, rather than ideologies and governments. We need to set aside our differences and treat each other as we would treat family for the sake of world peace.

As this film, the eighth in the franchise, cribs largely from that fourth installment, it surprised me that this element was not updated. It’s especially jarring given the rise of authoritarianism in Russia once again, as well as a litany of humanitarian crises all over the world. If there was ever a time for another message of unity after a clash of enemies, this was a gift-wrapped opportunity. But Stallone’s script (along with Juel Taylor) omits that. It could be because they didn’t think it would have flowed right, given the resolutions they were going for, and that’s certainly a valid point. It could be that they thought the previous speech was too odd to repeat. It could be because of Stallone’s personal politics, which tends to be pro-Trump, and therefore he might not see Russia as a problem right now. Absent evidence, I won’t speculate further. I’ll just say it felt weird to repeat so many elements of Rocky IV, but not this bit.

Still, this is a very fine piece of popcorn entertainment. The acting is solid, the audience was cheering just as loud as they always do whenever “Gonna Fly Now” creeps its way into the proceedings, the montages are cool, and the soundtrack is the best hip hop score this side of Black Panther itself. If you’re looking for a break from the prestige films, or if you want to see a franchise entry that doesn’t yet suffer from modern fatigue, this is the movie for you.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What would your boxing name be? What minor errors have you noticed in movies? Let me know!

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