Rocky IV would be a first-ballot inductee into the cheesy Cold War action movie hall of fame, if not the ultimate example of the entire phenomenon. Released in 1985, the year after the red-baiting Ronald Reagan was reelected in a historic landslide, Rocky IV introduced us to Ivan Drago, a massive, cold-eyed Soviet (played by a Swede) who uttered the immortal words “I must break you.”
“Must” was an important word. It wasn’t I “will” break you, or “I can’t wait to break you,” Drago’s personal desire in this matter was irrelevant. He was the product, we were told, of a totalitarian system, virtually grown in a lab for the sole purpose of breaking people. He must break or be replaced, by a different cog in the Soviet machine. After Drago killed Apollo Creed in the ring, Rocky trained to avenge his friend, but he did it old school. While Drago was being injected and prodded, monitored round the clock by the USSR’s best scientists like a smooth, blond lab rat, Rocky was out in the woods, shadow boxing tree stumps and slugging out deer. Rocky trained with friends and family, out of a desire to avenge a friend. When Rocky ultimately won, it represented the triumph of the individual over the system. Rocky IV told us heart and people who cared about you counted more than cold, centralized planning. It lionized the unconquerable human spirit and all of that.
In victory, Rocky didn’t gloat. Instead, he delivered a paean to reconciliation, uttering the film’s other immortal lines: “If I can change… and you can change… we all can change!”
The speech was so damn good even Gorbachev stood up and cheered. The crowd went wild. Soviet fans even waved the Stars and Stripes in appreciation (where did they get that??). It was all the optimism of Perestroika distilled into 30 seconds of brilliantly absurd film. The “change” in question presumably meant the change from enemies to friends. (“Better us killin’ each other in the ring than 20 million of us killing each other out there” as Rocky put it).
Yet when Drago returns in Creed II, it’s as Rocky’s enemy. Ostensibly in town so that his son Viktor (played by Florian Munteanu) can challenge Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) to a fight, Drago shows up unannounced to Rocky’s Philadelphia red sauce joint. He sits scowling in the darkness until Rocky comes over, and when he does, they don’t shake hands. The now wizened Drago explains how he lost everything after their fight — his status, his home, even his wife. Damn, and here I thought these two might happily reminisce, seeing as how they stopped the Cold War together.
It was sad to be deprived of that conciliatory chapter in the Rocky universe, the part where Rocky and Drago are friends. But in 2018 Drago’s anger did make a kind of sense. If properly set up, his bitterness could’ve been poignant. Creed II opens in Kyiv, Ukraine, where the Dragos now live. We see them putting in road work on grey, snow-covered streets, or throwing around pallets at the cement factory. It’s a bleak place, the film seems to say, and not much else. The drabness of their existence could’ve been part of their drive for revenge. 30-some years later Drago might’ve rightly wondered, Where are all the great things individualism was supposed to get me? And yet as the movie tells it, Drago’s disappointment is, like the rest of Creed II, almost meticulously apolitical.
In so many ways the political climate is perfectly primed for the Rocky IV sequel that Creed II purports to be. The Cold War that Rocky won for the USA is long over. The Soviet Union fell apart and what came after, at least for Russians, sucked pretty bad (rampant crime, diminished life expectancy, public industry being privatized into the hands of a wealthy and corrupt few, etc), with US-backed efforts like “shock therapy” arguably responsible for exacerbating the worst of it. In place of the clapping Gorbechev, we could’ve easily had a fictionalized Vladimir Putin in Creed II. After all, who would want a symbolic Cold War do-over more than Putin? A big part of his appeal was always in telling Russians to stop being ashamed of their Soviet pasts and start being proud again. The parallel between Putin and Reagan, who held similar appeal in post-Watergate America, the Reaganism that birthed multiple Rocky and Rambo sequels, is already there.
And we haven’t even gotten to collusion, cyberwarfare, and troll farms yet. Whither the pee tape, Creed II?
In the midst of this revived Cold War it’s almost unfathomable that Creed II could be this apolitical. This was the franchise Ryan Coogler revived. He was the guy who made Fruitvale Station, the guy who made the most politically relevant Marvel movie… well, ever (Black Panther). And yet Creed II, directed by Steven Caple Jr. from a script by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, has virtually nothing to say about Russia. I mean, other than that it’s cold (it barely even differentiates Russia and Ukraine).
Instead, Creed II is all about dads. Adonis’s dad, Adonis becoming a dad, Rocky being both a surrogate dad (to Adonis) and an estranged dad (to his own son), and Drago the harsh boxing dad (to Viktor, who barely speaks). It’s certainly fair that Creed II would be about fathers and legacies and trying to avenge the family name, but without political context, the big fight is no longer a clash of ideas. Now it relies almost entirely on sports movie tropes and 80s nostalgia. When Rocky takes Adonis to go train in a patch of dirt with a bunch of felons, it’s still reasonably watchable (especially Creed using a stack of tires as a heavy bag), but it no longer represents a larger idea. Adonis and Viktor are just two guys fighting, because they’re proud (of their fathers, of themselves, of… I don’t know, being dudes, I guess).
Even worse, since the fight no longer represents one way of life and mindset triumphing over another, it now feels like it’s about Rocky Balboa: master fight strategist. Rocky’s sneakily profound aphorisms were always a charming aspect of the Rocky franchise, but Creed II depicts it as if the aphorisms themselves were a strategy. Adonis apparently can’t win unless he has Unk Rocky there to explain that “there’s only three steps to get into the ring, but tonight they’re gonna feel as high a mountain.”
Even worse, the victors aren’t especially charitable in Creed II. I suppose you can’t expect every fight to literally solve a global crisis, but I always assumed part of the catharsis of a boxing match conclusion was the idea that the dispute was over, the beef squashed. Certainly so in the Rocky franchise, which was founded on the idea that some things were more important than winning. Rocky Balboa won in Rocky IV, but wasn’t it less about victory than about… change?
There’s nothing like an “if I can change…” speech in Creed II. There’s no big reconciliation, only a moral victory for a character we’re supposed to love because his name is in the title. 33 years after Rocky IV, it seems Rocky Balboa’s victory over totalitarianism was so complete that its spiritual sequel doesn’t even consider the idea that there might be something bigger than the individual. Maybe Rocky IV promised too much.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can find his archive of reviews here.