‘Creed II,’ a sequel to both ‘Creed’ and ‘Rocky IV,’ wins by decision (Movie review)

We’re not supposed to heap praise on sequels, since they are standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, but something should be said about how skillfully “Creed II” continues the story from “Creed” (2015) and “Rocky IV” (1985). Suffice it to say, director Steve Caple Jr.’s film will please fans of this franchise that has become a safe haven for grown men to cry in the theater over themes of fathers and sons (real or makeshift) and overcoming the odds.

But this will be a SPOILER review, so click here if you want the spoiler-free version.

Although marketed as a showdown between Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), where the former must overcome the demons of his father’s death in “Rocky IV,” “Creed II” has more layers to peel away before we get to that core. We’re never far from the core – indeed, Adonis and Viktor fight twice – but the surprising heart of the film comes from the relationship between Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) and Viktor.

Although I’ve defended Lundgren’s performance in “Rocky IV” as a man-turned-machine who still communicates a hint of tragic pathos (if you watch closely), he’s better here because the script by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor digs into his character. Rocky (Stallone) tells Adonis that in that 1985 bout, Drago broke things inside him that haven’t been fixed; Rocky is speaking literally, but Ivan is the figuratively broken man. He’s still iconic – he’s recognizable from the back of his head as Rocky finds him waiting in his restaurant – but he’s a fallen icon, with his country and ice-queen wife (Brigitte Nielsen) having abandoned him after the loss to Balboa (which incidentally jump-started the fall of Communism).

It’s a pleasure watching Stallone and Lundgren try to out-grizzle each other in that restaurant scene, but luckily the arc of the villains doesn’t stop there. It poetically parallels that of the good guys, and if you’re like me, it’s the climactic moment between the Dragos – when Ivan throws in the towel, revealing that his son’s safety matters more than winning the fight — that gets your tear ducts going. Viktor, for his part, is in the role Ivan held in “Rocky IV,” and then some: It’s not enough that his life is a machine-like regimen of training (although Ivan can’t afford the space-age lab this time), but he’s also toiling in the shadow of a machine-man. During the first fight, commentator Jim Lampley calls Viktor “Ivan,” and while that’s probably a flub, it’s appropriate that the editors leave it in.

Rocky tells Ivan that their fight was “a million years ago,” but ironically, Rocky is living in the past, too. I don’t just mean that he uses a landline – with a cord, no less! – and carries around an address book, but also that he spends more time at the gravesites of Adrian and Paulie than with his living family. There’s no good reason for him to be estranged from Robert (Milo Ventimiglia, in a cameo that got the tears flowing when I was already vulnerable from seeing the Dragos jogging together), so I’m guessing Rocky is an obsessively past-looking individual. This makes him wise, but at a price.

It’s either a flaw or a spot of subversive brilliance in the “Rocky”/“Creed” saga that the leading men often fight against the film’s theme; they never even come to terms with the contradiction. The rousing music and the happy victory tries (and often succeeds) at distracting the viewer.

Even more so than Rocky, Adonis is guilty of this in “Creed II.” In their first fight, Adonis is not only beaten by Drago (well, Adonis wins when Drago is disqualified for an illegal punch, but you know what I mean), he is seriously injured. “Rocky II” spends some time exploring the inhuman nature of boxing, but then the “Rocky” films shy away from that. With Mary Anne Creed’s (Phylicia Rashad) descriptions of her husband being unable to wipe his own butt, “Creed” acknowledges what happens to champions when they’re out of the spotlight, and the sequel continues that trend. In his hospital bed, Adonis looks like he’s been hit by a semi; even when on the mend, he pisses blood – a far cry from the lightning Mickey once said champions are supposed to piss.

You know the rest (even if you haven’t seen “Creed II” yet and ignored the spoiler warning): Adonis trains, then defeats Viktor in the rematch. This is the “have our cake and eat it too” portion of a “Rocky”/“Creed” film. Thematically, Adonis should not be fighting. Yes, he’s in amazing shape – lifting weights with his neck is the latest training-montage feature – and his coaching from Rocky serves him better than that from the well-meaning-but-he’s-no-Rocky Little Duke (Wood Harris).

But Drago remains a beast, with more height and reach; he’s technically the challenger, but he’s a 25-1 favorite. Logically, Adonis can’t count on Ludmilla Drago walking away mid-match and breaking Viktor’s heart, causing him to lose his edge. It’s a real danger that Viktor could do such serious damage to Adonis that he can’t recover this time – leaving Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their newborn daughter, Amara, alone, something Bianca specifically says she fears.

The mature approach is for Adonis to decline the fight, vacate the belt and retire from boxing. Why doesn’t he? At one point, he says he loves the sport. Also, the trailer-made theme of revenge simmers below the surface. And there’s a third element: his pride.

Adonis puts all of these things before his mother, wife and daughter, who might have to go on with a deceased or brain-damaged loved one. Granted, there was probably no way “Creed II” was going to choose the route of “Rocky V” (the saga’s least-liked film) and skip the closing ring battle, but it can be argued that the film celebrates the fact that Adonis gets away with his selfish decision largely by good fortune.

In 25 years, we’ll get a “Creed VI” featuring Amara as the first deaf female boxing champion, and we can look back at this film as the place where her journey begins: with a father who puts his career ahead of his family. “Creed II” wins by unanimous decision, but by dodging its intriguing contradictions, it’s not a knockout.

More “Rocky”/”Creed” reviews:

Rocky

Rocky II

Rocky III

Rocky IV

Rocky V

Rocky Balboa

Creed


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