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In Theaters: CREED II (2018)

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CREED II
(US - 2018)

Directed by Steven Caple Jr. Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Ivo Nandi, Jacob "Stitch" Duran. (PG-13, 130 mins)

2015's CREED surprised everyone. The idea of a ROCKY spinoff featuring Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, being trained by his father's rival-turned-best friend Rocky Balboa seemed like a desperate attempt by Sylvester Stallone to keep the ROCKY saga going. But it was a project conceived by others, most notably director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, who brought an electrifying energy to the story and a deep-rooted empathy and understanding of its characters, particularly Rocky, portrayed in a gut-wrenching performance by Stallone that earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination (he lost to Mark Rylance in BRIDGE OF SPIES). It also put FRUITVALE STATION director Coogler and its star Jordan on the map, leading to their reteaming for 2018's phenomenally successful BLACK PANTHER, where Jordan played the villainous N'Jadaka/Erik Killmonger. Coogler remains onboard as a producer on CREED II, but directing duties have been handed off to Steven Caple Jr., who helmed the acclaimed 2016 indie THE LAND. More importantly, the script is co-written by Stallone, given a more active behind-the-scenes role this time out. That proves to be both a blessing and a curse: yes, he's lived and breathed Rocky Balboa for over 40 years, but as evidenced by the increased absurdity of every franchise in which Stallone has been involved in a creative capacity, he doesn't know when enough is enough (the long-in-development fifth RAMBO film was rumored to have him battling a PREDATOR-type alien creature until cooler heads prevailed). There seems to be little need for a CREED II, which serves as not just a sequel to CREED but also 1985's ROCKY IV.






Depending on your tolerance for the jingoistic, flag-waving Cold War histrionics of the Reagan era, continuing the storyline of ROCKY IV may or may not seem like the right direction for CREED II to go. As the film opens, Adonis has just won the heavyweight title from aging Danny "Stuntman" Wheeler (Andre Ward). He's proposed to hearing-impaired musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he's on top of the world. That all comes crashing down with the reappearance of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in ROCKY IV and was defeated by Rocky in a revenge match in the Soviet Union, where even the most hardline communists--including a Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike president--stood up and cheered for Rocky as he was draped in the American flag. Drago's life in the ensuing 30 years has found him alienated and shamed in his homeland. He now lives in a gloomy Kiev, Ukraine apartment block with his hulking son Viktor (Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu), both of them abandoned by Drago's wife Ludmilla (Stallone's ex-wife Brigitte Nielsen also returns). An embittered, seething Drago wants vengeance--on Rocky, on Russia, on his ex-wife, on the Creed legacy, and on everyone--and he's spent Viktor's entire life training him to reclaim the glory of the Drago name, an opportunity that arises when unscrupulous fight promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) teams up with them to issue a challenge to the new world champ Adonis. Rocky wants nothing to do with it, leading to a falling out that results in Adonis recruiting Little Duke (Wood Harris), the son of his father's trainer. Bianca also has her reservations, considering she just found out she's expecting and fears that history will repeat itself and Adonis won't be around for her and the baby.




The fight is a disaster: Viktor beats the shit out of Adonis, the fight virtually over in the second round but resulting in a disqualification for an out-of-control Viktor when he lands a huge blow to Adonis' head while he was already down. You know what comes next: Adonis on a long road to recovery, doubting his ability, turning his back on Rocky, feeling sorry for himself, patching things up with Rocky, and answering the challenge for rematch in--where else?--Moscow, this time with Rocky in his corner. CREED II gets by almost entirely on emotional manipulation and audience familiarity with Rocky. There's some deep and thoughtful themes running through this film, with parallels to both other characters and previous ROCKY films. And time and again, whenever it seems poised to go further down that road, it hesitates and reverts to the familiar. Stallone is again great as an aged and weary but always positive Rocky, and he makes magic with little moments and asides, like the way he visits Adrian's grave and talks about how cold it is and after a pause, mumbles a barely audible "Miss you." It's a real and heartfelt moment, as is Adonis, hurt and furious over being told he's battling Viktor on his own, lashing out at Rocky about his estranged relationship with his own son (Rocky's feeling of not belonging is constantly conveyed in shots that show him standing alone outside a perimeter like John Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS, away from a group of people, whether it's the ring, the delivery room, or his son's house). Those words sting only because of the degree to which these two characters have come to love one another, and it's in those moments that CREED II manages to achieve the honesty and gut-punch emotion of its predecessor.




But as the film goes on, Stallone's influence becomes the driving force, and right around the time they're going back to Moscow, it essentially switches to autopilot, becoming pretty much a remake of ROCKY IV, minus the patriot porn and Paulie's robot, but with the addition of a singing and dancing Bianca as his hype man. The biggest missed opportunity of CREED II is the way it only scratches the surface of the Ivan Drago story. He's granted moments of genuine drama that almost generate sympathy for him and his son, but it takes the easy way out and turns them into stock Russian bad guys by the final act (perhaps Coogler would've explored the psychological complexity of Drago by having him show some remorse for killing Apollo, but Stallone definitely does not). There's a story to be told about Drago's humiliating downfall and the way he's obsessively molded his son into a single-minded vessel for revenge to restore honor to the family name. There's even some signs in his mannerisms--perhaps brought to the table by Lundgren, whose aged, craggy face speaks volumes that his minimal amount of dialogue cannot--that Drago regrets not letting his son be his own man. And there's some hints in Munteanu's performance that boxing isn't even what Viktor wants, but it's all he's been taught to do. It's always nice seeing Rocky back onscreen, and Stallone, Jordan, and all the returning CREED cast members (there's also Phylicia Rashad as Apollo's widow) are excellent across the board, but CREED II never gets by the fact that the Adonis Creed story didn't need to be continued, and what we've got is really just another generic ROCKY sequel that Coogler's CREED managed to successfully transcend. It's a testament to CREED II's adherence to a tried-and-true formula and cookie-cutter storytelling that the most interesting character arc belongs to Ivan Drago, and that Dolph Lundgren's performance had me wishing they'd made a hypothetical DRAGO spinoff instead.

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