Table Talk: Creed II (2018)

Comparisons to the Original and the Rocky Franchise

Anders: The short version of my thoughts on Creed II is this: the film isn’t as good as the first Creed, nor the original Rocky either. But, it’s among the better films in the franchise as a whole and a perfectly enjoyable piece of entertainment. Michael B. Jordan continues to show that he’s a bona fide movie star (a rarity in this day and age), and the supporting cast of Tessa Thompson and Sylvester Stallone in particular manage to bring enough heart to their characters it makes up for the fact that each of their characters are not quite as compellingly written as they were in the first film.

I don’t think it’s a huge surprise that Creed II doesn’t reach the same highs as the first film did. For one, it lacks the presence of Ryan Coogler behind the camera or writing. Stallone takes over the writing here and it’s clear that he’s interesting in recapturing some of the same energy that he brought to the original sequels.

What’s particularly interesting is that Stallone is more concerned with giving Adonis “Donnie” Creed a significant character arc than he is with Rocky himself. Rocky here is back burnered (for plot reasons) while the film focuses on Donnie’s attempt to go with a new manager in his corner, the son of his father’s manager, Tony “Little Duke” Evers Jr. (Wood Harris). Of course, this is part of the film’s goal of having Donnie retrace his father’s steps.

There’s a lot of that retreading of similar territory as the original films in Creed II. On the one hand, it can be excused thematically through the repeated motif of fathers and their children that we’ll get to later. However, I can’t help but feel that in the process of creating callbacks to the original Rocky series, it is shoehorning in more material than it can really deal with organically. The result is my aforementioned short-shrifting of Bianca and Rocky, along with some narrative choices that feel more like things characters “need” to do, rather than things that emerge in the screenplay organically from the characters’ personalities.

Aren: Considering that the original Creed is a minor miracle of Hollywood filmmaking, the new one can’t hold up. But it’s still good and I agree that it’s one of the better entries in the Rocky franchise. I think there are both strengths and weaknesses to revisiting the beats from the series. For instance, Bianca is much less interesting here, but I think this is due to the film not wanting to recycle the deaf plotline from the first film. We know that she’s going deaf and that worry is now extended here onto her and Donnie’s child, but the film is wise enough to not have the characters fret about the same stuff as it did last time around.

Where I think the film is more interesting is in reflecting back the beats of the original series, and kind of recreating the structure of Rocky IV, where Ivan Drago kills Apollo Creed midway through the film, and then Rocky has to beat Drago on his home turf at the climax. The interesting twist here is that Donnie is the one who is beaten down and has to avenge himself later on. This works with him acting in the stead of both his father, Apollo, and his mentor, Rocky, which plays into the film’s strongest focus, which is its exploration of fathers and sons. What did you think of relying so heavily upon perhaps the silliest of the films in the original series?

Anders: I’m not against the idea of setting up the story of the film around the emerging challenge of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu). While Rocky IV is definitely more cartoonish than the first Rocky or Creed (as a relic of Reagan-era Soviet-bashing propaganda to some extent), the death of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) at the hands of Ivan Drago also created the circumstances for Creed. So, it’s appropriate material for a sequel, and brings in a clear and elegant dual-revenge schema, where Donnie wants to avenge his father and Ivan wants revenge for his humiliation at the hands of Rocky.

Aren: That’s true. The first Creed very much deals with Donnie having to contend with living in Apollo’s shadow, and vying away from even taking on the Creed name because he doesn’t want to be beholden to living up to his dead father. But now he does take on the name at that’s film climax, and now he Creed II deals with him having to genuinely come to terms with being Adonis Creed and living up to his father, now that he’s actively taken on that legacy.

Not Enough Focus on the Side Characters?

Anders: I mentioned that Rocky and Bianca are somewhat sidelined. Rocky’s refusal to manage Donnie against the Dragos makes some sense. And Bianca’s pregnancy, while ostensibly adding to the whole theme of parenthood, seems to be written in a strangely passive way. I feel like she is actually goes along with Donnie’s plan to fight Viktor too easily. And same with Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), but more so. I just thought she went along with Donnie’s desire to fight Drago way too easily.

Aren: Rocky’s sidelining fits thematically here, especially if we consider the fact that Sylvester Stallone has been open about wanting to step away from the Rocky/Creed franchise and that Creed II is likely his last film, if we take his recent Instagram post at face value. Having Rocky step back mirrors the events of Rocky IV, but it also allows Little Duke to come into the scene. If there’s a sequel to Creed II—and considering how much money this film is making, I’d bet there will be—I could see Little Duke being the main man in Donnie’s corner.

As for your other comments, I do think that the Bianca’s pregnancy is weirdly passive because it’s a case of the narrative thread actually having to do more with Donnie than with Bianca. In the first film, her plot didn’t just seem like a structural lynchpin to Donnie’s plotline; it had its own life. Here, though, it’s much more thematically structured to give fuel to Donnie’s fire and get him back in the ring against Viktor Drago. Considering that the key scene with their child is when Donnie takes the baby to the boxing ring, and not the scene where they realize the child is probably deaf, adds more proof to this. It’s about what the child means to him, not what it means to her or what it means to them as a couple. And then if we consider that Bianca sings the walk-up song for Donnie during the final fight, it shows that the combination of their plots really just serves to fuel Donnie’s main quest. It’s an example of how this film takes on more conventional, and less interesting, narrative structure than the first film.

As for Phylicia Rashad’s Mary Anne Creed, I didn’t care too much about her reaction to the fight. I know it could’ve added to the angle of not wanting to repeat Apollo’s mistakes, but there’s only so long this film could be and there wasn’t room for everything.

An Indie Director Goes Hollywood

Aren: Steven Caple Jr. only has one other feature to his name and it’s an indie, 2016’s The Land. Like Ryan Coogler did with the first Creed, he uses this as his breakthrough film in Hollywood. What does his indie approach, and specifically his perspective as a black indie filmmaker, bring to the work?

In my estimation, it most comes out in the focus on character. For a film that uses a lot of Hollywood convention in the fights and the narrative arc, it still has a lot of focus on the small character moments, far more than most other Hollywood films of its type.

Anders: I haven’t seen Caple’s other work, so I can’t speak to the specifics of his style but I think you’re right to say that some of the bits of Creed II that work the best are rooted in a focus on character. Not just “character” as in a “character in a story,” but character as a person’s unique moral and psychological qualities. The film ultimately turns on Donnie’s growth as an individual, similarly to the first film.

What this means as far as filmmaking is that its best moments are the ones that treat Donnie’s personal journey; while I complained earlier that the whole “Donnie becomes a dad” plotline lends itself to the overstuffed feel of the film, some of the moments when he contemplates the possibilities of becoming a father with Bianca, and even more so the scene with the hearing test as he holds baby Amara. I do think that the main reason these scenes work though is Jordan’s skill as an actor.

Some of the film’s weaker bits in comparison to the first are the boxing scenes, which lack both the narrative build-up and the compositional verve of the ones in the first. There is no scene as electric as the the single-take match in the first Creed. The boxing scenes come across as slightly more perfunctory.

Aren: Yeah, you can tell that Caple Jr.’s eye for an action scene is not as good as Coogler’s, especially now that Coogler has made Black Panther, which has a few standout action scenes of its own. I like that the film doesn’t try to repeat the sheer visceral impact of the one-take fight in Creed, but I’m a little disappointed that it didn’t come up with its unique formal approach to the fights. It seems content to sit back and repeat the mix of slow-mo and close-ups that has been the conventional approach in the genre since Raging Bull. I was also a little disappointed that Caple Jr. reused the same approach to the Rocky theme that worked so well in the first film, cueing it up at a key moment in the final fight, but withholding the full blast of the song. It felt a bit like cheating since it’s such clear mimicry of what came before.

Anders: While it is a bit interesting to consider the use of a Russian antagonist at this particular moment in American history, with anti-Russia hysteria at its highest since the Cold War days of Rocky IV, I found it interesting to show that Viktor and Ivan have been living on the streets of Kiev in the Ukraine. There is a slight nod to the insane wealth disparity in places like Russia that invites a comparison to the experience of working-class African Americans that I don’t think would happen without directors and producers like Caple and Coogler.

Aren: That’s a good point. It adds a class consciousness that isn’t usual in blockbusters.

Anders: Creed II is both a Hollywood film, but it’s also a continuation of the Rocky series as contemporary African-American filmmaking. It’s ironic considering the racial implications of the first film, with the white working-class protagonist attempting to bring down the cocksure and hubristic African-American champ (Apollo). Creed II maintains its focus on the redemption of the Creed characters, emphasizing the bond between Rocky and Apollo developed in the later films and allowing that Donnie has something to teach Rocky, as in the first Creed.

A Tale of Fathers and Sons

Aren: The first film puts Rocky into the place of the surrogate father from Donnie, but this film is even more about the legacy of a father and the paternal relationship. You get it with Donnie and Rocky, but also Donnie and Apollo, Rocky and his son, and even Ivan Drago and Viktor Drago. It plays with very common, masculine idea of legacy and how sons are expected to live up to their fathers’ legends, but also be better than their fathers.

Anders: As far as the Dragos go, I thought it was mostly successful. Florian Munteanu is legitimately scary. The guy is huge and imposing in the ring. I like that he never quite crosses into the caricature that his father’s character was in Rocky IV, though Munteanu is never really asked to do much heaving lifting, dramatically (some of the boxes he lifts at his job in the Ukraine looked pretty heavy).

The emotional beats of the Drago family’s story rest on Lundgren who does a decent job of taking a character who was basically a cartoon of a “scary Soviet” and trying to inject some nuance. He’s been humiliated and looking to make a comeback through his son, who must redeem the family name. That said, the script is never entirely there to give Lundgren a real chance to show what acting chops he might have. There are moments where the characters yelling in Russian is supposed to convey some kind of exoticism that I think is misplaced. It would have been interesting to lean into this aspect of the plot more, in the parallels between Ivan Drago as a man and Russia as a nation.

Aren: I didn’t really notice any exoticism in the use of Russian, so I’m not sure that’s a correct reading of it. I felt like it was more a symptom of the film’s focus on realism, despite all the convention. If this is a “realistic” movie, then it can’t have Russians not speaking in Russian with subtitles overtop.

Anders: Oh, I agree you have to have them speaking Russian, but maybe it was the subtitles make all the dialogue very stereotypical Hollywood Russian presentation, clipped and harsh statements. Maybe I am reading it wrong.

Also, Brigitte Nielsen’s appearances as Mama Drago are meant to make us feel sorry for Ivan and the son that she abandoned, but they come across more as comical to me than anything. She basically says nothing and is meant simply to signify the moral bankruptcy of the Russian ruling elite through her abandonment of her family.

Aren: They’re actually the worst part of the film. The thing that I find most puzzling is that she clearly has a powerful new husband, so I don’t know what Ivan thinks he’s going to accomplish with by Viktor winning back favour by defeating Donnie. Does he think she’ll leave her new husband and come back to him? It would’ve been much more successful to make Ivan’s story more about Russia’s role in the world, the humiliation of the Soviet Union collapsing and the economic stagnation of capitalist Russia, than about him wanting to win back a rich woman, but that would’ve required pulling some attention away from the other elements of the story to give the Drago subplot more life. As I said before, there are only so many minutes you can devote to subplots, so you have to take your pick.

Anders: There’s so much about fathers and sons, or even more so what it means to be a parent, in this film that it’s almost dizzying to track them. We have Donnie becoming a father himself; we have the Ivan and Viktor story, discussed above; we have Donnie’s rift with his father-figure in Rocky; we have Rocky’s estranged son, Robby (This Is Us’s Milo Ventimiglia, reprising his role from Rocky Balboa). In short, it’s a bit of thematic overload, and ultimately there’s probably more than enough material here for multiple films.

Aren: I think a lot of the cluttered nature of this thematic emphasis is that they wanted to get all the Rocky loose ends wrapped up in this film, since there’s no guarantee Sly will be back for more.

As well, for all the thematic overload, the focus on fathers and sons is the best part of the film. That ending, where Donnie takes Amara to Apollo’s grave, and Rocky finally goes to see Robby, is very touching. It’s another reminder of what a powerful statement about modern masculinity that these films are, which we could probably have an entire table talk on.

Suffice to say, that a film that’s basic appeal is all about fighting and the appeal of violent spectacle chooses to end on men being so emotionally vulnerable is kind of remarkable. It shows that although Creed II is a step down from the original, it still has its heart in the right place, and that counts for a lot.

Creed II (2018, USA)

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.; written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, based on a story by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker; starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu.