So there were still problems in Russia after Rocky beat up Ivan Drago? What about that speech he gave?!
by Thom Yee
Odds are pretty good that if you’ve seen Rocky IV that it’s not a movie you hold in particularly high regard intellectually. It’s probably not a movie you view as the dumbest movie you’ve ever seen, nor would you likely have had very high expectations of it in the first place, particularly as it was the fourth part, but still, there was something dumb enough about it that called for some sort of vocal remark. Rocky IV, in which our titular hero avenges the death of his friend, mentor, and former rival Apollo Creed, and, in so doing, also solves the communist problem once and for all (ONCE AND FOR ALL!), is definitely the tone-deaf, adopted second cousin, mutant freak installment of the series, the one that stands out from the rest like a sore, swollen, badly in-need-of-cutting boxer’s eye. It’s maudlin and overdramatic and yet made up of scenes with very little dramatic impact, and most of those scenes are punctuated with incredibly ham-fisted revelries at their end. What I think really pushes the movie fully over the edge and off the cliff of stupidity, though, is the speech Rocky gives at the end, after winning over the hostile Russian crowd by beating up the bad guy/Russian mascot Ivan Drago, where he suggests that if he [Rocky] can change and they [the Russians in attendance] can change, then EVERYBODY CAN CHANGE!! It’s not so much that the moment comes off as both under-considered and monumentally naïve (and it does!) or that you disagree with the sentiment (and you might!) as much as it’s the incredulity of the suggestion that Rocky IV, after everything you’ve just witnessed, is a movie that might have had a point. That, to me, is what makes that final message so laughable.
But I love it. And I think if you’re a real fan of the Rocky series as a whole, warts and all (i.e., Rocky V), there’s a good chance you love it too.
My love for Rocky IV is something I’ve always been aware of and never been something I’ve tried to deny, but just how important a role Rocky IV plays in my overall appreciation of the series, with its open steroid use, and its James Brown musical numbers, and its fake Gorbachevs, and its hero yelling “Drago” (three times!) over the snowcapped mountains he just ran all the way up [in the absence of museum steps] as a symbol that his training was complete, is something I wasn’t fully aware of until just recently, as thoughts of Creed II danced through my mind as the movie’s release approached.
The prospect of Creed II, being the mind-blowing, senses-shattering, world-altering match between the Rocky-trained Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed, and Viktor Drago, son of Ivan, raised to be an even bigger monster than his father, is intriguing for a number of reasons: “Drago’s still alive? What’s happened to him since? And he had a son? And Donnie’s fighting him already? They’re not gonna wait for a later sequel? They’re blowing their biggest, most fantastic fantasy matchup load now? Already?” What makes this confrontation so particularly interesting to me, though, is that these two characters, Adonis Creed and Viktor Drago, come from the very opposite ends of the Rocky storytelling spectrum. Yes, Ivan Drago did kill Apollo Creed in Rocky IV, preventing Donnie from ever having met his father, and so these characters all have direct connections, but Donnie’s story in the original Creed is a largely grounded one built on relatable emotional material, hewing much more closely to the original Rocky, whereas the jingoistic revenge plot music video that is Rocky IV is just about the furthest thing from grounded or relatable or realistic. And now those two worlds are combining?! Madness!
What’s it about?
In the three years since Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) took on the role of trainer, manager, and mentor of Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), illegitimate son of former heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed, Donnie has gone from upstart boxer with potential to heavyweight champion of the world. But, waiting in the wings, biding their time, and now ready to strike are disgraced former Russian boxing champion Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Donnie’s father in the ring, and his son, the monstrous Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), raised in oppression and hatred to become the ultimate adversary! Can Donnie possibly withstand this new threat? Can Rocky train Donnie to become the true world boxing champion while also facing his own family issues? Can Viktor Drago prove to be as interesting a villain as his legendary father? And how can a movie with so much already going on possibly find time to service its other characters, like Donnie’s girlfriend, whatshername (Tessa Thompson), or, like, Donnie’s mom (Felicia Rashad)?
Creed II opened this past weekend to the tune of $55.8 million, a very decent amount, quite a bit more than the original Creed’s $42.6 million, and technically the biggest opening ever for a Rocky movie, but, like a certain big-hearted Italian boxer seeming to take a severe beating but who’s actually using all of that abuse to get mad, there’s a little bit more to what’s going on than just a straight-up killing. Both Creed and Creed II opened on Thanksgiving Day weekends, those numbers reflecting their five-day totals after opening on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving all the way through to the Sunday after rather than the usual three days and Friday to Sunday openings of most reported weekend movie openings, so while those numbers might seem to be approaching blockbuster for this type of film and time of year, it’s really more like $35.6 million for Creed II and $29.6 million for Creed on the normal scale. And of course they both made more in their opening weekend than any other Rocky movie, those other Rockys are a million, billion years old! Still, the Creed movies are doing pretty well, so much so that it seems beyond doubt that we’ll be getting more Creed movies and, perhaps, even the most thrilling possibility of all, spin offs (Adrian’s Revenge!)!
Probably the biggest news going into Creed II (Other than “Ivan Drago is back!? THAT’S CRAZY!”) is that original Creed director, Ryan Coogler, would only be a producer on this one as his directorial career has quickly grown to the point of near world domination (from the indie Fruitvale Station in 2013 to the mainstream Creed in 2015 to the world-conquering Black Panther just this past February in 2018). And, actually, Coogler’s role in Creed II is merely that of an executive producer, which usually (though not always) means an even more hands off role than producer. Serving in his stead is another up and coming young black director, Steven Caple Jr., and it’s a move for the budding young franchise that—okay, can I be honest here? I love that Creed II has a different director at the helm. I’m not a big Ryan Coogler fan. His movies are fine, well-crafted and well done over all, and I have no major problems with him as a director or person, but the original Creed and Black Panther are so overrated that it really does bother me that both of those movies are held in such high regard rather than being recognized as merely the pretty good but nowhere-near-flawless pieces they are. In my mind, no Ryan Coogler is no big loss, so my advice if you were worried about that change going into the movie would have been don’t be, and my advice now after having seen Creed II is definitely don’t be. Creed II is great. Better than the first! Though probably not technically.
Is it any Good?
Now, I know I just said Creed II is great up there at the end of the last section (like, three lines ago), but, in the spirit of continuing honesty with which I just concluded that section, I should start off this one with admitting that it took quite a long time into Creed II before I started feeling the movie. Maybe even all the way up to the third act. There are definitely a lot of things I liked in Creed II and about Creed II all throughout the movie, and there were several moments that had me grinning like the world’s biggest, happiest idiot, but there was definitely something bothering me as I made my way through the movie’s first two acts. One thing I will say is that if you were a big fan of the original Creed for its dominating energy or spirit, Creed II doesn’t bring it in the same way. It’s at many times much quieter, slower, and contemplative than the first, and it just doesn’t have the same level of attitude or the same type of sheer, unbridled explosiveness. But that’s not what was bothering me as I watched Creed II. In fact, those are things that fit given where the character is now, no longer a young upstart but a recognized champion who may even be on his way to starting a family. No, what was bothering me was Creed himself. And that feeling never truly went away. More on that later.
In most of the ways that matter, Creed II is a movie I would have to like. Like an Avengers movie to a comicbook fan or La La Land to a musical fan or the first Die Hard or Back to the Future movies to anyone who’s sane and not an a**hole, Creed II is a movie served up on a platter of undeniable ecstasy to fans of Rocky IV, a fanbase made mostly of people who saw it later, well after its initial theatrical release/critical drubbing. It answers the questions we’ve all had for years! It’s the sort of fantasy bout we all knew we wanted to see the second Rocky IV ended! Like, “I wonder whatever happened to Ivan Drago?” And “Wouldn’t it be cool if his son fought Rocky’s son? Or Creed’s son?” And so forth.
The thing I love about these latter-day Rocky movies is that they explore our hero at times in his life that we don’t usually get to see, and they give us the sort of continuing adventures we don’t usually get, allowing us to form a deep emotional bond with him as we revisit him over decades of time. Rocky Balboa showed us who the character had become in his later years when he still had just a little bit more to give and Creed showed us a Rocky nearing the end of his life after everyone he’d loved had passed away or moved on, and while both stories shared a strong sense of melancholy over the losses in life we’ll all have to face eventually no matter how hard we fight them, they also contained a sort of sensibility to them that showed, perhaps, the kind of light a character like Rocky can’t help but attract. They were also both great showcases for the kind of deeply affecting and sensitive actor Sylvester Stallone can be despite his outward appearance and reputation (much like Rocky himself!). In Creed II, Rocky is finally and truly an old man, one who doesn’t take up the space or attention he once did (people don’t just come up and say “hi” or ask for a picture with him the way they did in Rocky Balboa), and there was even a point where he approached Donnie, hat in hand, and he looked so, so small, in a way that reminded me of the great scene in the very first Rocky movie when Micky offered to be Rocky’s manager. Here, in Creed II, Rocky not only has to deal with the strain the Drago fight puts on him and Donnie, but the distance between himself and his own son, Robert, who’s long ago moved away from Philadelphia, and as much as that beat with his son could come across as forced drama, it rings emotionally true to the story we’ve followed with Rocky and his adult son, first in Rocky Balboa, through Creed, and now concluded (?) here in Creed II.
All of which makes it sort of astonishing that it’s not only been more than 30 years since Rocky IV, but it’s even been more than 10 since Rocky Balboa, and this 70-plus-year-old version of Rocky doesn’t remind you at all of the Rocky who put himself back together for an exhibition bout with then heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon in the mid-‘00s let alone defeated the seemingly invincible Ivan Drago in the mid-‘80s, but the same can’t quite be said about Drago himself. Dolph Lundgren, though clearly an older man now too, has a meanness and intensity to him that instantly recalls his role as one of the most truly intimidating villains in sports movie history. It was a role eerily perfect for the actor, and it’s one that left a strong enough mark on me, nine lines and all, that Lundgren himself remains one of my favourite actors even though he’s really never done anything of note other than this, Rocky IV and… Masters of the Universe? Almost surprisingly, Ivan and his son Viktor are given a great deal of the emotional load of Creed II, and, to be honest, the stuff with Ivan and his son Viktor, the way we examine what happened with the two after Ivan lost to Rocky, what it cost him, and how those losses affected their relationship and who they became, was actually my favourite stuff in the movie. The last scene we have with Ivan and Viktor is actually a really strong father-son moment, especially considering all they’ve been through together, and it gave Creed II a sort of poignance that’s, frankly, ridiculous considering the origins of the Drago character as a mostly one-dimensional villain from an ‘80s action movie devoid of real emotional complexity.
It’s all of this sort of careful attention to who these people are, where they are now in life, and where you would hope they can still get to that makes Creed II a really great and fulfilling movie for me, but, if you’ll notice, that’s all of the stuff happening around Creed, and it turns out it’s the Creed character himself I didn’t like all that much in Creed II. In the original Creed, Donnie has a chip on his shoulder the entire movie as he faces the existential crisis of who he wants to be and what he wants to do under the shadow of being the son of a former champion with a larger-than-life personality who died controversially and even foolishly. It’s a long, intimidating, and discouraging shadow cast by his father, Apollo, and one made even more complicated by the fact that Donnie was Apollo’s illegitimate son, all of which came to a head in the final fight of the film, and all of that helped to make Donnie a sympathetic character even though he came from riches, lived in riches, and became a success because he was already famous and people helped him. In Creed II, Donnie’s kind of just a self-absorbed ass. He’s got things going on with Rocky, he’s got things going on with his girlfriend, he’s got things going on with his mom, he’s thinking about starting a family, but all he really seems to really be thinking about is himself and some nebulous idea of why he needs to fight Viktor Drago. I do think they eventually get around to giving Donnie a point of view as the heavyweight champ and what it would mean to him to redeem the Creed name for the blackmark that was left on it at the end of Apollo’s career/life, but I didn’t get that sense of who he is or what he wants and why those things are important early enough, nor do I think those things came across strongly enough once they became more clear for me not to feel like Donnie doesn’t deserve what he has. The movie attempts to frame Donnie’s mindset in the type of singularly driven thinking that champions come from, but I couldn’t help thinking that how he acts through much of the movie is the kind of stuff that permanently destroys relationships.
So should I see it?
I think there are a lot of facts you can gather about a movie like Creed II that at least seem like they might help in assessing whether or not the movie’s right for you. For instance, Creed II is familiar. Creed II is formulaic. Creed II is exactly the type of movie you expect it to be. And Creed II is a movie for fans of the overarching Rocky series first and foremost.
All of that does mean you might not like Creed II, and if all of those things sound bad to you, I certainly don’t think you would ever love Creed II. But if none of those things are enough to discourage you, I see no reason for you not to go and see Creed II. And if you’re a long-time fan like me, I see every reason for you to love it. I see the continuing of stories for characters we love and never want to let go of that we never really get. I see a quality of continuing storytelling and a commitment to what it takes to tell these stories over such a long time that might be unprecedented, even if we don’t love every part of the story equally. I see the fruition of more than 30 years of fan speculation and theories, the answers to long-held “What if?”s and “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”s. And, y’know, if you’re not a big fan of this series, that might be one of those things you want to change, because, as a decades-long saga, the Rocky movies really are pretty good overall.
If you’re a bit more of a nu-gen fan, brought in more with the appeal of the original Creed, then I think you’ll like Creed II as well, though maybe not quite as much. In its favour, Creed II still tells a very solid story, it finds more time for characters like Felicia, Donnie’s girlfriend, and his mom, which is good, because those guys didn’t get a whole lot to do in Creed I. And, as a screen presence, Michael B. Jordan is as strong as ever playing Adonis “Donnie” Creed. If only Donnie himself was a more likable character.
Thom’s Creed II final score
On the Edge
- Y’know at first I found Apollo’s tombstone to be a little gaudy, but, thinking back on it now, I don’t think it was anywhere near gaudy enough.
- He is smaller than Apollo! That’s, like, the first thing I noticed about Adonis too, Ivan Drago! We have so much in common!