No Show Without Punches
Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it.
– your correspondent, writing about Creed and displaying the usual uncanny level of precognitive ability
Christmas works party time rolled around again, and we reconvened in a pub a short walk outside the city centre, each having filled the time between ceasing pretending to work and the start of the festivities in our own particular way.
'Did you go to the cinema?' one colleague (whose name I shall be withholding) asked me. 'What did you see?'
'Creed II,' I said.
'I've not heard of that. What's it about?'
The imp of the perverse was whispering in my ear, I'm afraid, and being aware that she was perhaps of a High Church of England-ish disposition... 'It's about the Council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed,' I said. Keeping my face straight was almost too easy, now I think back on it.
'Yeah, it's all about the splits in the early Christian church,' I went on. 'At the end of the first Creed they thought they'd figured most of it out, but in this one the Arian heresy rears its ugly head and it causes them all an awful lot of trouble.'
'Wow! I can't believe they did a film about that,' she said, clearly wondering how she could have missed hearing about this.
I did consider going on to describe how the Emperor Constantine was played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ossius of Corduba by George Clooney, but my better nature made an unexpected reappearance and I had to confess it was all a pack of lies: Creed II is actually a boxing movie, the sequel to Creed and the eighth movie in the Rocky series, directed by Steven Caple Jr and (perhaps inevitably) co-written, co-starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. (My colleague and I are still on good terms, thankfully.)
The movie opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) fulfilling his potential and finally becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Yet nagging doubts remain – can he really live up to the example set by his late father, legendary champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who doesn't appear in person, but who one hopes is getting decent remuneration for the use of his image throughout the movie)? Impending marriage and parenthood only add to the pressures on the young athlete.
And then Donnie's trainer Rocky (Stallone) is startled by the reappearance of a figure from his past: Russian former boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades before, and who was then humiliated by Rocky in a rematch on Russian soil. Drago was left in disgrace and has spent the intervening years raising his son Viktor (the splendidly-named Florian 'Big Nasty' Munteanu) as a living instrument of vengeance. The Dragos challenge Donnie to what's basically a second-generation rematch, and one which Donnie feels obliged to accept, despite Rocky's deep misgivings (not least because his own fight with Ivan Drago left him with permanent brain damage, not that anyone mentions this much nowadays).
What follows basically confirms that the Rocky series is the great sentimental soap opera of mainstream American cinema, as the various characters struggle with their personal demons, make tough choices, cope with success and failure, and so on, all expressed through a combination of character-based scenes, training montages, people talking to graves, and protracted fight sequences. This film tells a classical narrative of hubris, nemesis, and redemption, and the fact it is so familiar may be why it feels so satisfying to watch. The trick to these films, I have realised, lies not in the fight sequences themselves, for these are almost always completely predictable – given their context in the film, you always know who is going to eventually win in any particular situation. The film's success lies in the fact that you don't mind knowing what's going to happen – what's going to happen is what you want to happen, because the film has made you root for the hero and want to see the bad guy take the beating they have been earning throughout the film up to this point. Creed II is very successful in this respect, and credit must go to the screenplay (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) and the performances, particularly those of Jordan and Stallone (even if the latter's transformation into someone resembling Popeye seems to be accelerating). On the other hand, it has to be said that this is very much a guy's film, its themes of parental expectation and legacy largely expressed through the relationship between fathers and sons, and Tessa Thompson ends up with a slightly underwritten part as a result, mainly just there as girlfriend and mother.
Of course, the film may also be familiar due to the fact that, in that in many respects, it basically repeats the plot of Rocky IV, albeit with one rather big modification. You could argue that in some ways the first Creed basically revisited the plot of the original Rocky, which was a solid drama and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976 (even if it has been known to pop up on lists of 'Worst Film ever to win Best Picture'). Perhaps the most remarkable (possibly even miraculous) thing about Creed II is that it revisits the characters and events of Rocky IV, surely the silliest of these films, and still manages to produce a credible and affecting drama. I'm almost tempted to say that this is the kind of film The Expendables should have been: there's a genuine sense of a significant moment taking place when Stallone and Lundgren finally meet one another, and it must be said that the big Swede gives a highly effective performance as the film's antagonist (Munteanu is largely just there as a physical presence, though his acting performance is perfectly acceptable). It's entirely possible that this is the best acting work Dolph Lundgren has ever done (not that this is necessarily saying very much, of course). Perhaps even more startlingly, the film also sees the return of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago's ex-wife Ludmilla, albeit in a much more limited cameo. I expect that this film's willingness to embrace the past of the series so whole-heartedly (I would have said that if you went into a major Hollywood studio and proposed doing a movie with Lundgren and Nielsen in key roles you'd just get laughed at) will largely be lost on the young audience it is aiming for, but for those of us who've been following along for many years, it's a very impressive and likeable trait.
I did enjoy the first Creed a lot, as a solid sports drama, but I have to say it's entirely possible I had an even better time watching Creed II, for its connections to the series' past as much as its own very real merits as a drama. Eight films in, with critical plaudits still flowing, I expect the temptation will be to keep on going – but the Creed-Drago rematch was the obvious way to go with a sequel (even if it seemed quite unlikely to me it would ever get made, two and a bit years ago). I'm not sure if they could find a worthwhile direction to take this story in – but based on the strength of the first two films, I'd happily give them the benefit of the doubt. This is excellent entertainment.