In the lexicon of action movies the sports drama is often the hardest to pull off, and pull off well sans corniness or agenda of promoting minutiae only fans can appreciate.
So, when the hulking 6'4", 245 lbs Viktor Drago (played by the charismatic German-born Romanian boxer Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu) towers over the titular hero, the equally ripped Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan in an even more protein-enhanced Killmonger mode), during the ceremonial stare down it resonates as a spine-tingling moment.
Why? Because of context, because it is steeped in the mythos of the previous Rocky movies. And because it is both foreshadowing of what's to come and a reminder of the continued haunting of past events.
The imagery reminds Rocky fans about that time in Rocky IV, when the 6'4" Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) loomed over the bloody, mortally wounded Apollo Creed—Adonis's father—and declared in his steely, Soviet voice: "If he dies, he dies." Lundgren's Drago became an iconic villain in boxing folklore, then. Even if he was a fictional character played by a Swedish guy trying hard not to fuck up his Russian lines.
Now, Ivan's son Viktor has also become a villain of historic importance in sports movie history. Not because this is nominally a boxing movie with the accoutrements of analysts and media fanfare, the fancy and flashy entrances, the gorgeous women holding aloft ring cards, and the highly conditioned bodies and boot camp-hardened skills of both Jordan and Muntenau (though it IS all that, too), but because the Creed series is at its heart about fathers and sons.
And how the sins of your father will drive you to do many things to try to exorcise those demons.
When he wrote the Rocky series Sly's genius became apparent when you realized how you didn't really need to know anything about boxing to enjoy any of the movies. Now, by extension its continuing legacy in the Creed movies (yes, Stallone continues to be involved in the script), keeps its premise and arc of the heroic journey by positioning it as a battle between two "sons" who are struggling to make their own way in the shadows of their fathers.
The movie opens with Donnie Creed in the locker room, prepping for a heavyweight title contention fight, the famous Rocky Balboa in his corner whispering that last bit of mental keenness.
Donnie, the illegitimate son of legendary heavyweight Apollo Creed, has come a long way since we last saw him in the 2015 movie. It's also been three years since he moved to Philadelphia from California to train with the retired former heavyweight champion Rocky, his father's sparring partner and cornerman.
Donnie has also found love in partially deaf musician Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) and his success under his "uncle" Rocky's tutelage has been stellar in its rise.
Now that he's a boxing star though, he's dealing with newfound fame, his father's legacy, and his continuing yearning to become a champion.
While Jordan provides the powerhouse of charisma and physicality that lets him carry this movie on his pneumatically carved shoulders through its sometimes overwrought and overly melodramatic moments, it is Stallone that supplies the anchor with his easy, unadorned thespianism.
Director Steven Caple, Jr. uses many filmmaking tricks to get us as close to the action in the ring and feel the hard shots and the knockdowns as much as we can and boy do you wince when an uppercut snaps the head back or a mouthpiece goes flying from a vicious counter.
But Caple's greatest cinematic magic is reserved for the tale of unfulfilled retaliation penned by Ivan Drago living his ultimate revenge fantasy through his son, and Donnie losing all sensible faculty in the face of it because he feels in his bones that defeating the son of the fighter who killed his father (in an exhibition match no less) would be the sweetest kind of justice.
It gave us chills when Ivan Drago and Rocky Balboa meet again after 30-plus years. Both grizzled and long in tooth, they are in very different places as they head into their twilight years. Rocky has moved on to other victories and is grappling with other mistakes. But Drago has lived frozen in the consequences and the fallout of his defeat way back in the 1980s.
"Because of you, I lost everything. Country. Respect. Wife," Lundgren's Drago drawls in a Russian-accented English that is now zero caricature and just walking, talking pain journal.
Drago promises: "My son will break your boy."
The montage of the Dragos' lives reveal a pair of Russian pariahs. Ivan's family has been thrown to the slums of Ukraine and for Viktor, growing up meant a run-down apartment, working two jobs, and training for long hours in very Spartan conditions. But Ivan has coaxed and coach greatness out of his son for a record of 14 heavyweight KO finishes.
It's not enough though and Drago knows it. Rocky says at that same meeting: "That was a million years ago." To which Ivan rumbles, "It's like yesterday to me."
In contrast to the Dragos' destitute living conditions, the young Creed's millennial sportsman issues seem like trifling things, reeking of Frist World problems seeking therapy. And Rocky knows it, warning Donny when he decides to take the fight: "Listen, that kid was raised in hate. You weren't."
As a keenly authentic combat sports movie, Creed is often overly involved and in love with many of its dramatic, musing moments that we felt many could have been left on the cutting room floor, included in the DVD special features later.
What it does best though is bring the glory back to the sweet science, remind us of a time that was and could be again when boxing was a sport for kings and gladiators who had a keen grasp of physics, technique, and timing—not the corrupt and sad spectacle it has become with tune-up fights, padded records, and constant ducking of legit opponents.
Jordan shines as the hero ascendant, the champion of the people against the context of a next-generation Creed vs. Drago showdown, a clash of metaphors and pugilism. And plenty of fan service for the Rocky and boxing aficionados like the appearance of Brigitte Nielsen, former light heavyweight champion Andre Ward as boxer Danny "Stuntman" Wheeler, and Jacob "Stitch" Duran who's a legendary cutman in the boxing and MMA world.
A worthy sequel and about as good an introduction to start with for those new to the Rocky and Creed characters.
Creed II opens in Philippine cinemas November 28