The good fight

“You’re right! That really is soft.”

“You’re right! That really is soft.”

I’ve always hated Rocky IV. I’m pretty sure my life as a movie critic started in 1985 when my heart sank into my feet as I watched it in a crowded, overly enthusiastic theater with a bunch of friends.

Walking out of the theater, my friends were all hyped after American Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) vanquished the evil Russian Ivan Drago. I, on the other hand, thought the damn thing was ridiculous and hokey, especially when Rocky climbed a snowy, treacherous mountain with nothing but his beard and a dream. My sour attitude rendered me unpopular at the after-movie diner get-together. I don’t think I touched my pie.

Now, 33 years removed from that shit movie, the franchise says hello again to Drago (a weathered Dolph Lundgren) and his boxing son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) with Creed II, the follow up to Ryan Coogler’s excellent Creed.

Coogler has not returned, replaced by Steven Caple, Jr., in the director’s chair. Michael B. Jordan and Stallone are back, doing pretty much what they did in chapter one, which is not a bad thing. Creed II doesn’t break any new ground and represents a step backward from the astonishingly good Creed, but it’s still a lot of fun.

This surprises me, because it dares to take the ridiculous story of Ivan Drago and expand upon it. While the first three Rocky movies were true sports underdog movies with credibility, Rocky IV was a moronic play on ‘80s patriotism and Cold War fears. Drago was a cartoon character and Rocky had become one, too. That final image of Rocky wrapped in an American flag had me grinding my teeth.

Creed II tries to make Drago a real person, a defeated man living in shame for decades after losing to Rocky. His loss to Rocky came after killing Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, so when Drago comes looking for a fight using his young, up-and-comer son Viktor, Adonis Creed (Jordan) can’t help but take notice. He’s got a score to settle, and he wants Rocky in his corner.

Sound stupid? It is a little bit, but Caple, Jr., manages to continue the authentic vibe of Creed, even with the Dragos back in the ring. Lundgren actually gives one of the film’s best performances, his sense of humiliation oozing from his pores as he tries to regain former glory and the love of his estranged wife (Brigitte Nielson). Caple, Jr., and his screenwriters, which include Stallone, manage to make Drago a real character rather than a stereotype.

One thing that makes the movie work is that it jettisons the U.S. vs. Russia angle and focuses on the characters. When Adonis and Viktor square off, it’s all about the two men and the sport, with no mention of democracy and communism. Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t stand and applaud Adonis after their final fight. That actually happened in Rocky IV! Rocky got a standing ovation from the Russian leader. Nuclear war was averted. God, that movie sucked!

Jordan is as convincing a cinematic son to Carl Weathers as there will ever be, and he makes for a solid boxer. The movie’s fights are as good as any in the Rocky franchise, and it looks like some real blows are being landed. Like his dad, Adonis gets his ribs cracked a lot in the ring, and it looks and sounds like it super hurts.

Tessa Thompson returns as Adonis’s songstress girlfriend, Bianca. Thompson is good at anything she does, but she is saddled with the film’s worst moment—a musical intro as Adonis enters the ring for his final fight in Russia. I have a very hard time believing some Russian promoter sat down with Bianca to work out her light show and sound.

As a Rocky fan, I’m happier than heck that somebody found a way to keep the franchise going, even if it involves revisiting the lesser parts of the Rocky mythology. Creed II isn’t good enough to be an improvement on its predecessor, but it is good enough to make you almost appreciate the awful Rocky IV three decades later. That’s a notable accomplishment.