The opening shot of the opening scene of Rocky (1976) is of a painting of Jesus on the wall of the Church converted to a gymnasium, with Our Savior looking down on a match between a couple of third-rate fighters, Spider Rico and Rocky Balboa. As writer, director, and now super-duper star, Sylvester Stallone explains it, “The character of Rocky was built on the idea that he was chosen to do something. That’s why the first image in Rocky is the picture of Christ.” As it is said in Proverbs:
The eyes of the LORD are in every place, Watching the evil and the good.
If the Lord is lucky, he will not have to see Creed II, an abomination of a movie bringing the Rocky series to its lowest point since Tommy Gunn. The movie is at once predictable and incoherent, one that sets up some foundational existential questions, and then inexplicably pretends like it didn’t. Have you ever had a friend ask you a serious question and then talk over you while you are trying to answer it? That’s pretty much how the tail end of this movie goes.
Okay, so that is probably a little harsher than it needs to be. And I am sure my allergic reaction at least partly stems from high expectations for the rebirth of the series. I am a reasonably big fan of the Rocky movies, particularly the original, Rocky III, Rocky IV (a guilty pleasure), and L&D really liked last year’s Creed, as a flawed but entertaining movie that had a lot of heart.
While Creed II has some heart, what it has a lot more of is the plot lines lifted directly from Rocky III and Rocky IV. The movie opens with the title character ascending to the heavyweight championship juxtaposed with the spawn of Ivan Drago beating down challengers in the dingy gyms Moscow has to offer. The elder Drago is in his son’s corner, and we see an (obviously) American fight promoter gym rat keeping tabs on both sides of the world.
This is essentially the set-up of Rocky III, comfortable champ, hungry challenger. Instead of Mr. T, however, we get the Son of Drago, who lacks the charisma and intrigue of his father, so the film just decides to focus on the elder Drago (Dolph Lundgren). You may recall from Rocky IV that it was Ivan Drago who killed Apollo Creed in the ring back in the 1980s. Rocky, of course, “avenged” this tragedy by not only defeating Drago on his home turf in the Soviet Union, but also by winning the heart and minds of the Soviet crowd in spectacular and ridiculous fashion.
Fast forward to Creed II and we learn that the elder Drago has yet to live down the loss. His moneyed countrymen spurn him, and his charismatic wife (Brigitte Nielson) walked away from both Ivan and their son, Viktor. As Jung famously observed, “the greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents,” and, indeed, it is up to Viktor to make amends for the shortcomings of his father. Together with the American fight promoter, the Dragos visit Philadelphia to goad the new champion into a match. That the young Adonis Creed feels compelled to fight under his late father’s flag puts the basic geopolitical tensions of Rocky IV into play, along with Drago-Balboa, Drago-Creed, Drago-ex-Mrs. Drago, Creed-papa Creed, Creed-mama Creed, Creed-Bianca, Donny-Biancas-baby Creed, to name a few.
Although there is way too much going on and I have many issues with what the movie actually attempts to resolve, I will just mention that my primary objection has to do with the treatment of fighter safety, particularly the question of a corner’s decision to stop a fight. Because it is bad form for a fighter to “quit” it is often incumbent on the referee or the corner to step in and save the fighter from himself. Firstly, it is the referee’s responsibility to stop a fight when the fighter is unable to defend himself anymore. Absent an official stoppage, the fighter’s corner can “throw in the towel” when it believes its fighter has had enough punishment.
This, of course, is a paramount issue because presumably Apollo Creed might have made it out of the ring so many years ago if Rocky or Apollo’s long-time trainer Duke Evers had thrown in the towel on his behalf. Indeed, we learn that Rocky feels the pain two-fold because he was the champ who should have been fighting Drago, and he also was in the corner that didn’t protect Apollo. Apollo’s widow (Felicia Rashad) also feels the pain of loss, spending her life amidst Apollo’s fortune and glory, but without the man who made it all possible. And then, of course, there is young Adonis himself, feeling the pain of being deprived of a father at the same time that he is about to become a father.
That actually doesn’t sound too bad of a plot, does it? If they had to go back in time, would they have stopped the fight when their fighter was in danger?
The movie wrestles with this in a perfunctory fashion, but it ultimately throws in the towel when it matters most. For me, this was both disappointing and stupefying, and, beginning with the tire in the ring during training, I just don’t understand why Stallone let the script follow that path. If the rifle is hanging on the wall in the opening act, it had better go off by the end of the film — if it doesn’t get fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there! Is this really what young Adonis Creed was chosen to do?
On the plus side, there are actually a lot of things on the plus side. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky continues to be a great and emergent character, and Stallone himself continues to be a modern marvel of HGH. I half expected him to get in the ring and spar a few rounds himself. Even better, we have Michael B. Jordan being his great self, though his greatness is limited by the more cartoonish motivations given to him by the script. He continues on his relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and her character and her music are both taken seriously. The principal focus on Adonis and his family continues the rightful transition toward emphasizing African-American characters, as it is, of course, African Americans who continue to dominate the U.S. boxing scene. Indeed, Jordan and Stallone have a great exchange on this point over baby names.
We also get to see Dolph Lundgren again, and he really has this strong, silent type thing nailed. He isn’t given much to work with, but he is entirely believable. I will also say I was pleased that the Brigitte Nielson character is satisfyingly predictable, and she manages to light up the movie without having to say a word. With those two taking center stage, the young Drago — you know, that big muscly guy that almost gets run over by a Hummer a couple of times — isn’t given anything to work with. Who is the villain here, anyway?
So while the plot is just too much tried and not enough true, there is probably enough to like here to rally this one above the $6 bar. It has played to mostly positive reviews and we are undoubtedly headed to Creed III, so if you have seen the first seven in the series, there is probably enough here to warrant seeing the eighth. The Achilles heel is not that the movie didn’t entertain, but that it could have rivaled the “original” with a bit more imagination and work on the script side.
Next time, I’ll manage my expectations better. And I hope the Creed III folks will either fire that rifle or keep it out of sight.