In the film industry, there is no franchise that is anything quite like Rocky. That’s simply a fact. Very few franchises have a comparable longevity – the only possible exceptions being Bond, Superman and Star Wars. Even fewer have quite the backstory, where every reboot literally lives the underdog story it portrays. Finally, next to none have the ability to reinvent some of their own stereotypes whilst sticking to others to keep everything feeling fresh and familiar all at once. Coming off the success of its predecessor, and the legend preceding that, Creed 2 has something for both the seasoned professional and fresh-faced rookie alike.
At this point in the saga, need I even summarise the plot? Yes and no. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), illegitimate son of late boxing legend Apollo Creed, has gone from rags to riches in the boxing ring, largely due to the training of his coach, former champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). A well-respected and commercially successful figure, he earns the world heavyweight boxing championship with ease and succeeds in ‘wifing’ long-time girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) by the end of the film’s first 20 minutes. Every loose end from the first film has been tied up.
However, as is the case with franchises, once-tight knots have since come loose. Rocky fans would remember the spiky-haired, blue-eyed, famously minimalist Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) from Rocky IV. Where average boxers of the 1980s threw punches with over 700 pounds of pressure, he hit in the early 2000s. Where Rocky is 5 feet 8 inches, Drago is 6 foot 8. Where Rocky knocks him out in the original film and becomes a national hero, Drago becomes a national disappointment. Now aged, estranged from his wife, and in self-imposed exile from Russia in the Ukraine, he channels his survival-at-all-costs work ethic through his labourer-turned-boxer son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), a man even stronger and hungrier than him. Their meal? Creed, and his newly-earned world heavyweight championship belt. Nothing else will do, because nothing else can.
It is this emphasis on the Dragos that gives this film its unique edge. Whilst Rocky II had seriously explored the backstory of the film’s primary contender, the late Apollo Creed, there was a real depth missing from Ivan Drago in Rocky IV that continued to enamour audiences long after its 1985 release, the result of the film sacrificing characterisation for an attempt to cash in on the Cold War. Here, with no reference to the Cold War, that character is in full strength. Lundgren plays Ivan as the typical father-turned-coach, creating great chemistry with Munteanu that mirrors the Balboa-Creed partnership physically and emotionally. However, he shines in his interactions with his wife Ivanka (Brigette Nielsen); though only a minor character, Director Steven A. Caple leaves every shot of them together lasting just a little longer than it should, giving the audience a chance to experience the emotional pain she brings to him. Their cold, wordless relationship, mixed with Viktor’s adoption of a responsibility to mend this with athletic success, does something that has never been done before in a Rocky movie; make the audience root for the villain. We understand the power behind every punch, and those punches are more powerful than ever; the unity between sound and choreography of each of Viktor’s boxing scenes portrays his knocked out opponents as dolls, their pathetic crumples to the ground in light of his screen-filling size evidence of masterful cinematography.
The only reason this dynamic is potentially stronger than the Creed-Balboa one is since Jordan’s, Stallone’s and Thompson’s performances are as strong as the audience expects them to be. Jordan continues his journey of bringing Rocky into the new age with sustained brilliance, his Adonis Creed still rash but determined and objectively millennial as he grows to balance family life (particularly the mid-movie birth of his daughter Amora) with that of a sportsman. The traditional training montage, this time set in a remote desert training camp, is the franchise’s best since the late 1970s. Thompson plays a Bianca with decreased importance, a concession by virtue of Juel Taylor’s and Stallone’s screenplay, but a necessary decrease what with all the other action; luckily, her in-film music eventually finds its way to a soundtrack laden with rappers from Nas to A$AP Rocky and trap beats from Sydney to Compton. Phylicia Rashad provides a performance as Apollo’s wife Mary Anne Creed equally as commendable as her first attempt in the previous film.
What is worrying, however, is Stallone’s Balboa. Aptly performed (albeit an Oscar nomination is likely far-fetched), the growth of his character is far more than what was seen in the first Creed. His reconnection with son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia reprising his role from Rocky Balboa), successful cancer treatment, and repetitious visits to his wife and best friend’s graves begs the question, where does Rocky go now? I fear we may soon see the end of Rocky. The timing seems right, the send-off befitting, but how I wish it wasn’t so.
Of course, no Rocky film is worthy of being called one without incredible boxing sequences. In Creed 2, there is significantly more emphasis on the shaky camera technique, POV shots, and unusual angles from ringside to bring the experience of both watching and partaking in a fight to the audience. Drawing them in and out of the ring allows each punch to resonate both physically and emotionally, a testament to both the editing of these scenes and the attention to detail paid by Jordan and Munteneau in portraying them. Finally, there is so rarely cause to note this but the sound mixing in these scenes deserve special mention – the pronounced cracking of ribs, fracturing of jaws, and crashing thuds to the hard ring-floor will cause those inexperienced (and potentially some of the experienced) to feel like they too are experiencing those same injuries. Bravo sound mixers Damien Canelos and Bill Donnelly; your mixing has not gone unnoticed.
Ultimately, Round 8 of the epic match between the Rocky series and time is overwhelmingly in favour of the former. Staples brings just enough new into the old mix to give those both entering and exiting the franchise a spectacle they can both enjoy. Darting back and forward in time and characters, one can only hope both the contenders make it to another round.
Creed II is screening Australian Event Cinemas from today.