Few film genres are as fascinating on the big screen as boxing movies, at least in Philadelphia. The personal struggles, big punches, and hard falls induce larger-than-life thrills. Moments that the sport itself has not realized in a long time. No movie captures this dynamic as well as Rocky, whose sequel Creed II develops its enticing premise in unexpected ways.
If you missed Creed, Michael B. Jordan plays the son of Apollo Creed. The result of an extramarital affair, Adonis Creed searches for legitimacy. He hooks up with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa for training and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca Porter for romance.
Directed by the brilliant Ryan Coogler, Creed is a tremendous film that satisfies the Italian Stallion’s legacy and reinvigorates the franchise. Steven Caple Jr. directs the new movie, a film with the same challenge as another Rocky sequel.
Creed II has the Rocky II dilemma: follow an artistic and commercial success by creating interest in established characters. This was accomplished by reaching back to the Cold War to retrieve one of the best blockbuster villains ever created.
Ivan Drago returns with his son, Viktor, a rising prizefighter. Despite a jarring shot of Dolph Lundgren on the Philadelphia Art Museum’s steps, the pure evil of the Soviet heavyweight has waned since we last saw him.
Following the “Everybody can change…” speech, Drago was shunned by his Soviet counterparts. The shame of his defeat included the departure of his wife. In the passing decades, Ivan Drago raised his son and used their outcast status to fuel Viktor’s boxing.
Brigitte Nielsen appears as Ludmilla Drago, the only true villain in the film. With her ice-cold demeanor still intact, Nielsen accomplishes a lot in a few scenes by disrespecting her husband and son. Sure, Viktor Drago is a massive man and cheap shot artist, but being abandoned by his country and mother creates sympathy that was not thought to be on the card.
This is where Creed II begins to show that change is a more complex, but less immediately rewarding vision than winning the Cold War.
Both Drago and Creed possess common backstories. Societal mistreatment and absentee parents make them more contemporaries than foes. The Rocky IV story arranged the match. It did not define the movie.
This is a franchise trend that began with Rocky Balboa. Opponents matured into mere professional boxers and well-developed characters who offer some empathy. Thunderlips the Ultimate Male and Clubber Lang are caricatures of the past. Internal motivation is the new point of emphasis. Not Good vs. Evil.
After decades of being the Michael Myers of boxing, the Dragos have developed a gray area. Viktor Drago is Erik Killmonger. There is a respect and depth to the character that defies traditional blockbusters.
This development creates a better and more sophisticated movie, but lacks the satisfaction of pure heroes fighting pure villains.
This is emblematic of the overall vibe of Creed II. Like Rocky II, it is a solid movie that is not as gratifying as its direct predecessor. The acting, particularly from Michael B. Jordan, is incredible. The fight scenes are chaotic and vicious and worth every penny. Aspects of character development blunted the traditional story, but reveal why the franchise has been able to create eight films.
In 1976 a long shot boxing film won Best Picture. Despite the efforts of Rocky V, Sylvester Stallone has shown a gift for developing characters that audiences bond with differently than they do with other franchises. No other movie franchise has lasted this long without special effects as a primary attribute.
The perseverance and heart of each protagonist create a relateability that defies logic, especially in Philadelphia. Even at a weekday matinee in the Manayunk section of Balboa’s hometown, it was obvious that the characters in Creed II still pull at the same heartstrings as the original Rocky. Audience members shout at the screen and urge Adonis Creed to get back in the fight as if there are non-cinematic stakes on the line.
Despite the changing arc of villains, there is an emotional connection to Rocky and Creed that is the direct result of tremendous writing. 42 years after first capturing the hearts of audiences, people attend a Rocky movie like they are at the Blue Horizon. Sylvester Stallone has crafted an amazing phenomenon, at least in the City of Brotherly Love.