It’s almost admirable that with this second installment of the Creed franchise (and the now the eighth movie to feature Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa), the creative team behind the film would just go ahead and decide, “Oh, screw it, let’s go ahead and bring Drago back.” This saves us from some dumb mid-credit scene, where we see an older Ivan Drago watching Adonis Creed win a fight on some old CRT television, and then as we pan up to his face, Drago mutters, “I will break you, too” – setting up some fight we might see three movies later. Creed II spares us the drawn out, manufactured drama and just takes us straight to the action. In that way, Creed II feels pleasantly refreshing with its retro-ness.
When we look back at the six Rocky films (that somehow span 30 years, from 1976 until 2006), it’s pretty remarkable there’s only one truly bad movie out of the lot. Rocky won a Best Picture Oscar in an incredibly stacked year; Rocky II was a letdown, but still watchable and has a great ending, Rocky III is a ton of fun and might be the most underrated of the franchise; Rocky V is terrible; and Rocky Balboa is a lot better than it needed to be (and made a lot more money than anyone expected).
Rocky IV has always been the strange outlier of the Rocky films. Maybe because it’s the only Rocky film not to be scored by Bill Conti (Vince DiCola would get those duties). But it’s more likely because it’s the movie where Rocky Balboa became a superhero, with a sidekick robot, who won the Cold War. He wasn’t just some dumb schlub from Philly anymore. He was Superman. Rocky IV is a ludicrous movie that is so preposterous that it’s impossible not to have fun watching. Plus, it’s got the best soundtrack of the original films. Yes, “Eye of the Tiger” is a defining song from Rocky III, but Rocky IV gave us Survivor’s “Burning Heart,” James Brown’s “Living in America,” Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out,” and John Cafferty’s “Hearts on Fire.” Rocky IV is basically, “The 1980s At It’s Most Ridiculous, The Movie.”
(True story, a few months ago I was out at a bar with a friend and I played “No Easy Way Out” on the jukebox for no particular reason and I heard a very enthusiastic guy at the other end of the bar cry out, “Hey, from Rocky IV! So I played “Burning Heart” next and he yelled out, “Wow, another, Rocky IV song! What is happening?!” After I played the remaining two, I’m pretty sure this man had an aneurysm.)
The reason I went into all that was that it’s also a bizarre decision that Creed II would want to jump into the world of Rocky IV after the first Creed was so grounded in realism and universally praised. (At least the Rocky franchise had Rocky III to kind of bridge the gap between realism and absurdity.) If Creed is a spiritual sequel to the first Rocky, then Creed II is a direct spiritual sequel to Rocky IV. And, dammit, they pulled it off.
Creed II (directed by Steven Caple, Jr., replacing Ryan Coogler) opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) winning the heavyweight championship against a fighter past his prime. Adonis is now the champ, but it comes with an asterisk. Around the same time, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) announces that his son, Viktor, would like a shot at the championship. The Drago saga is handled well. After losing to Rocky in 1985, which concluded with Drago’s home country openly rooting against Drago, poor Ivan Drago is shunned as a failure by his country and even his wife (Brigitte Nielsen) winds up leaving him. All he has left is his son, Viktor, who he uses as a cypher to regain his old glory. Wisely, Vikor isn’t used here as a “bad guy” — instead he’s just kind of this big dumb kid who gets caught up in his father’s dream of redemption. Also, I never knew how much I wanted to see Drago and Rocky share a scene on screen together again, but it turns out I certainly did want this.
Adonis looks at Viktor Drago at his own way to redemption and a chance to get rid of that asterisk. It was Ivan who killed Adonis’ father, Apollo, and, narratively, as a boxer, this would seal his legacy as “one of the greats, the son avenging the death of his father. What makes this complicated is twofold: First, the newly engaged Adonis is now expecting a child of his own with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), as the couple has now moved to Los Angeles so Bianca can advance her singing career. Second, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, just in case you didn’t know who was playing Rocky this time) is totally against Adonis fighting Drago. He’s already watched his friend Apollo die at the hand of Ivan Drago and can’t bear to watch history potentially repeat itself.
Ivan Drago left Adonis Creed without a father. Now does Adonis risk doing the same to his child? (There’s part of me that thinks there’s an interesting movie to be made about Adonis Creed saying no to the fight, that it’s not worth the risk. Obviously, this is not what happens because there’s no way that movie could exist. But, still.)
There’s a lot going on in Creed II, more than a movie featuring Ivan Drago really ever needed to have. But at its core, Creed II is about family. It’s about Adonis Creed’s relationship with Bianca and his continuing reconciliation with Apollo. It’s about Ivan Drago and his son, and where the line is drawn when it comes to personal redemption. And it’s about Rocky, struggling with the very few people he has left who he considers “family.” For a movie that features a dramatic fight between people with the last name Creed and Drago, it’s strangely sad and reflective.
‘Creed II’ opens November 21. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.