Creed II

creed ii

I’m pulled in multiple directions by Creed II, the latest entry in the Rocky franchise.

For the majority of the film, as much as anything I was conscious of the conventionality of it. That is, since the overwhelming majority of films I see—especially that I’ve seen in the last ten to twenty years—are foreign films, independent films, and documentaries, when I see a more mainstream Hollywood movie, instead of experiencing its typical movie conventions as so normal as to not be noticeable, they stick out to me as awkward and unreal.

I don’t mean to say that I never see “regular” movies. You can look down the list of the hundreds of movies I’ve written about and see plenty of films that would count as mainstream Hollywood fare. But it’s also the case that they are very much in the minority. How many, for instance, were in, say, the top ten money grossing films the year they were released? 2%? Fewer?

Nor am I saying that Creed II is somehow unusually implausible or poorly done, as conventional movies go. If anything it strikes me as at least better than average in terms of the quality of the acting, the dialogue, the coherence of the storyline, etc.

But because it’s a “regular” movie, and I’m mostly not used to “regular” movies, it had a vaguely trite, manipulative feel to it for me. For a good portion of the film, perhaps more than half, I was frankly rather bored.

On the other hand, as I’ve written about in my essays on other films in the franchise, the character of Rocky and his story have been emotionally important to me for a good portion of my life. Rocky is one of the handful of fictional characters that I feel a fondness for, a connection to, that I otherwise only feel for real people in my life.

So there were also times in the movie that I was conscious that this all “mattered” to me in a way that is atypical of fiction, that I was somehow emotionally invested in knowing what was up with Rocky at this point of his life. As the movie was winding down, and in the aftermath of the movie as I reflected back on it, if anything this feeling became more prominent, like Creed II as a whole hit me at a deeper level than I’d expect from a movie that, for much of the time I was watching it, felt like it wasn’t particularly drawing me in.

Creed II’s “hook,” its connection to the prior movies of the franchise, is not a very promising one. I say that because it continues the story of Rocky IV—Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed, fights Victor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, the robotic Soviet bruiser who beat Apollo Creed so badly in an exhibition that he died from the injuries he sustained in the ring, and who was then in turn beaten by Rocky in a revenge match—and Rocky IV was, for my money, clearly the weakest film of the Rocky franchise. Rocky IV was the “jump the shark” film, the most blatantly cartoonlike of any of the films, not to mention being politically offensive in its Cold War era appeal to cheap patriotism.

After Rocky Balboa—the critically reasonably well-received Rocky movie that came after by far the largest gap between movies in the franchise—the decision was made with Creed to only continue the Rocky story by embedding it within the story of a fighter of a new generation for a new audience. Based on Creed II, I’d say there’s a good chance they’re moving toward transitioning more fully away from Rocky. Creed felt to me like maybe 60% the story of Adonis Creed and 40% an update of the story of Rocky; Creed II feels more like 80%-20%. If, say, Stallone dies before the next film is made, it’s really not far-fetched to me that there could be another (or multiple more) Creed films without him.

Rocky even says to Adonis late in this film something like, “This has to be your story now.” Which in context means something like, “You’re the champion. It’s not about the famous former champion Rocky working in your corner. You’ve proven you can be on your own now, and be famous and accomplished in your own right.” But it could also be taken as a meta-comment about the franchise itself, indicating that Rocky is passing the torch to Adonis, announcing that he’ll have a reduced role or no role at all in future Creed films.

I admit I’m not fully on board with the transition. I chose to watch both Creed films more out of a loyalty to Rocky than a desire to see the franchise modernized with younger characters occupying the spotlight the bulk of the time.

So that was another factor that affected my reaction to Creed II: All else being equal, the more it was about Rocky the more into it I was going to be, and the more it was about Adonis Creed the less into it I was going to be.

You know, if this wasn’t a Rocky movie, if it wasn’t an opportunity to once again check in on Rocky and see what is happening in his post-retirement life, it’s unlikely I would have bothered with it. That is, if it were just some mainstream sports movie about an athlete facing challenges rising to the top of his field, with a hearing-impaired fiancée singer simultaneously pursuing a music career. I mean, insofar as that’s what this movie is, again, it seems reasonably well done, but I just doubt I would have gone to see it without the connection to an important fictional character from my past.

Another feeling I had coming in was that I doubted there was much more that could be done with the boxing angle, the “big fight” thing, and I hoped that Creed II would focus as much as possible on the human stories instead (though I knew there was no way some “underdog overcoming adversity to win” storyline would not be a major part of the movie). I mean, that had been done to death already in this franchise, let alone beyond that in boxing movies and sports movies in general, with none ever equaling the original Rocky; I really didn’t need to see yet another rehash of that.

I realize as I write, by the way, that you can make a case that I’m being unfair to the movie. I’m admitting I came to it with certain hopes, certain attitudes, expecting to like it insofar as it did this and dislike it insofar as it did that, with the risk that those expectations could become self-fulfilling prophecies. Just as earlier it could have come across like I was “blaming” it for being more in the style of a mainstream Hollywood movie than some deeper or more quirky independent film, when of course it never claimed to be anything other than that. (Nor for that matter were the preceding Rocky movies anything other than mainstream attempted crowd pleasers, though the original Rocky was so vastly superior to most films of that genre as to transcend it.)

But these essays are admittedly very personal and subjective, not limited to some quasi-objective assessment of the merits of each film. They’re autobiographical to various degrees, describing how I reacted to a film and discussing why I did. Given my emotional connection to Rocky and to a lesser extent the entire Rocky franchise, it’s especially to be expected that my piece on Creed II would be of that subjective style.

I didn’t dislike the Adonis Creed portions of the movie certainly. It’s not like I barely tolerated them in order to get to the Rocky parts. (In other words, they weren’t like the Yoko Ono cuts on a John Lennon album.) They were a mixed bag for me. Like I say, I was bored at times. But I also felt myself wanting to like Adonis Creed and the non-Rocky folks in his story, and I ended up doing so to a modest degree.

I just didn’t feel all that connected to him. Maybe it’s a generational and cultural thing. Certainly the rap music or whatever it is on the soundtrack didn’t draw me in to the story. Adonis and them didn’t feel like my people in some sense.

But then again, if anything I overlap generationally and culturally even less with the black folks of Moonlight. Or for that matter the white folks of The Florida Project. And those are two of my favorite movies of recent years, two films that I experienced as emotionally very powerful. (Or heck, what do I really have in common with the white urban working class denizens of Rocky?) So it can’t be just a matter of these people being young and black, and as someone not young and black I don’t instinctively see their stories as interesting and relevant to me.

So, yeah, the Adonis parts of the movie were OK—I thought, for instance, that Phylicia Rashad did fine reprising her role as his mother from the preceding film, even if I did have to keep reminding myself that she’s Apollo’s widow, not Bill Cosby’s wife—but generally not more than OK.

What of Rocky in this film? Well, as I mentioned, he’s de-emphasized compared to Creed and of course drastically de-emphasized compared to all the earlier Rocky movies, where he was the protagonist.

Beyond that, one thing I’ll mention is that the Rocky humor is less in evidence here than in the prior films. One of the most noteworthy, endearing things about Rocky is his humor. Mostly it’s his knowing, droll remarks (the dry, folksy, everyman humor), and sometimes it’s his genuinely being clueless about something (the dumb guy humor). That’s not completely absent in Creed II certainly, but it seems like he doesn’t get off as many intentionally or unintentionally funny remarks as we’ve come to expect.

By the way, they decided not to follow up on his cancer diagnosis from Creed. That’s dismissed here with a single line from Adonis, reminding Rocky that he took care of him during his successful bout with cancer (that, it is implied, took place in the time between the two films).

Mostly Rocky’s just not in Creed II enough to delve into his current life in any deep way. What there is I suppose is fine—it held my interest—but I wanted more.

As far as the fight scenes, they’re no better and no worse than usual. They have Rocky train Adonis out in the desert somewhere in New Mexico for really no reason except to have a new setting so the training sequence would overlap with the earlier movies 75% instead of 95%. I got into that minimally, and the actual fights a little more, maybe marginally more than I anticipated.

One problem is that they have Adonis supposedly grow into a heavyweight for this film, and he still looks considerably smaller than that. Stallone himself is actually a fairly short guy, and really not a heavyweight, but he could sort of pull it off. With his big, muscular build, and his crouching, body-punching style, you could kind of see him as a Rocky Marciano/Joe Frazier type small heavyweight slugger. Adonis is decidedly more Marvis Frazier than Joe Frazier.

For a time it looks like the Dragos are going to be simple, villainous foils, as in Rocky IV. Ivan just seems like a bitter guy who has heartlessly exploited his son into an opportunity to avenge his own defeat, and Victor barely says a word the whole film, just grunting his way through his scenes like some untamed beast. But I have to give the movie credit that by the end they both seemed significantly more human. I didn’t feel like there was a fully one-sided effort to manipulate me into rooting for Adonis; I eventually felt considerable empathy for Victor.

I appreciated the father-son moment between Ivan and Victor late in the movie. Heartwarming in its way. It’s also nice that they include a brief father-son scene between Rocky and his son Robert at the very end. (I thought his son was Rocky, Jr. by the way. I remember Adrian telling him when she was pregnant in Rocky II that that’s what she wanted to name their baby. But then I looked it up online, and apparently the son’s name is indeed Robert, with Rocky being his sometime nickname that he eventually stopped using.) I would assume that’s something they’ll build on if indeed Rocky remains a character in future Creed movies.

When you get right down to it, if I didn’t have an emotional attachment to Rocky to where I’m resistant to these movies drifting away from him to tell the next generation’s stories, really Creed II is probably a better, more sophisticated movie than any earlier movie of the series except the classic original. I mean, certainly it’s not as cartoonish as Rocky IV.

I’m going to give a modest thumbs up to Creed II. For much of it, I was undecided if I would bother with any further sequels—if there are any—but by the end I was leaning toward seeing future installments, at least as long as Rocky has any significant part in them.

But I remain disappointed—though not in the slightest surprised—that Stallone and the filmmakers never had the guts to make a film in this series that leaves out the boxing, the big fight where the underdog has to prove himself. Rocky V, to its credit, came the closest (though, perhaps not coincidentally, that’s the movie that most people seem to identify as the weakest). Once Rocky became too old to box, they simply switched the main focus to Adonis. (Frankly, Rocky was already much too old to plausibly fight in Rocky Balboa, but they squeezed one more bout out of him for that film.)

I would like to have seen them commit more fully to the human story of the retired Rocky without having to find some way to anchor it in a big fight. And maybe not kill off all the other main characters, so we could have seen how their lives as well as his developed over the years.

Or, I would like to have seen a film in the series violate the expectations by not having the protagonist underdog triumph heroically. Granted, in a minority of the “big fights,” including the very first one in Rocky itself, the protagonist’s triumph is not to win the fight but to survive to the end in a respect-earning loss. But it would have been refreshing in its unconventionality if the protagonist in one of these movies had not been willing to dig as deep as his opponent, and had then had to deal with thinking himself a quitter. Or if Adonis really had been a Marvis Frazier—a solid heavyweight, top 10 or top 20 at his peak, but well below champion level—so the story would have been about how he handles the failure to follow in his father’s footsteps.

What if Victor Drago had prevailed in the end in this fight, after all that build-up where every viewer “knows,” based on the template of the previous Rocky movies and just Hollywood conventions in general, that that’s not going to happen? (The very fact that I feel no need to give a spoiler warning indicates how unthinkable that is.) Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see what the filmmakers did with that?

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