From Russia with Hate
Warning: This review reveals some aspects of the plot.
The Rocky series began as an aspirational drama – the American Dream made flesh. Rocky Balboa, a mumbling blue collar, simple soul with a big heart (enlarged by too many punches to the chest) who took advantage of an American Bicentennial publicity stunt; an offer for an ordinary Joe to take on the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, only to give the arrogant champ a run for his money, was a break out hit. Everyone loved Rocky, and just about anyone could identify with the character. A sequel followed, then another, tracking Balboa’s meteoric rise through the boxing world and his growing celebrity, not to mention a reputation that had to be defended from unscrupulous opponents.
By the time Rocky IV hit screens in 1985, the series had moved from quasi-realist drama to superhero series. Stallone, now as writer and director, followed the logic of sequels – that each had to follow a pattern of escalation. In short, Rocky’s opponents had to get progressively more difficult as Balboa became larger than life. For the third sequel, any sense of realism or indeed comment on the world of boxing was abandoned. At the height of Reagan’s America, there was no greater enemy than the Soviet Union. Rocky, an all-American icon, representing both the compassion and might of a benign superpower, as the country imagined itself to be, would have to fight them. The times demanded it. The audience wanted it. Enter Dolph Lundgren as the ultimate product of Soviet sports science – steroidal psychopath Ivan Drago.
Rocky IV is a dumb movie. It’s also, for those uninterested in nuance, realism, character or sense, the best in the series. If you weren’t pumped to see Rocky avenge the death of one-time nemesis, turned best friend Apollo Creed by fighting this superhuman killing machine on his home turf in front of a baying mob and Soviet dignitaries, then you were and are dead inside. It’s an iconic confrontation in the annals of ‘80s action cinema; schlock at its most stripped down and manipulative. It was never designed to be followed by a sombre and gritty sequel.
Yet in 2018, here it is. Creed II continues the Rocky franchise extension with Balboa repositioned as mentor and Michael B Jordan as the new punchy with a soft centre. The first slavishly followed the series formula, launching a new hero on the back of the old and trading on the original series’ legacy for its emotional and psychological effects. It worked both as rough and ready boxing drama and disguised remake. Adonis Creed was no Balboa, but as a proxy for Rocky’s undimmed ambition he’d do just fine: an empty vessel we’d fill with our memories.
His sequel finds him challenged for his title by Viktor Drago, son of Ivan – a tower of muscle who, like his disgraced Dad, is being used to further the cause of Russian prestige. All concerned know that the memory of Rocky IV is better than the movie itself, so Creed II cannily manages this relationship with nostalgia by pretending the original fight and the events around it – Apollo’s death, Rocky’s revenge – carried real emotional weight, like something that might have happened in the real world. In this parallel universe, where the 1985 film wasn’t a silly distillation of the cold war, Drago senior is a broken man who’s determined to regain his former position at the Russian top table and salvage his reputation by using his son to beat Balboa’s boy. His defeat on that Christmas Day so many years ago hasn’t, we learn, taught him the secret of Rocky’s victory – heart. Drago Junior is a brutalised boxing machine who’s encouraged to use brute force and dirty tactics to win those all-important bouts. “Break him,” Dad tells junior when preparing to fight the baby Creed. Oh Ivan, didn’t Rocky teach you anything?
Creed II is something of a franchise oddity; it’s like all the former Rocky movies combined – the plot of 3, the loss of confidence and family dynamic of 2, the villain of 4, the familial restoration of 5 – and all delivered in the register of a serious drama, albeit one that’s lumbered with providing an emotionally satisfying payoff to the testosteronic mayhem of the past.
One watches it wondering how the filmmakers will finesse the Drago story, so that one dimensional villainy becomes something more satisfying, in keeping with the grounded tone of this new series. The solution, Drago senior realising he’s become no better than the Soviet state of old that used and discarded him, throws in the towel to save his son from unnecessary harm from a first humiliated, then rejuvenated champion. Ivan Drago has a soul kids, and life will never be the same again.
If Creed II marks the end of the Rocky franchise, it’s a satisfying and wholesome conclusion that leaves both new and old characters in respectable places. Not diverging one iota from the series formula, it might have been a derivative slog, but that formula still works damn it – the montage still rouses (though man, do we miss Bill Conti) and it’s an effective sequel to two very different movies grown from the same cinematic DNA. If this spin-off series has a flaw it’s the aforementioned Jordan, who despite looking the part and giving a respectable and emotive performance, lacks the personality and humour that made the original Rocky a screen legend. Try as the filmmakers might, they just can’t recapture the same level of human interest that characterised those early films – the original characters remaining the marquee attractions. The sequel’s styled as a handover movie. “It’s your time,” Balboa tells the champ. But the truth is we were never interested in Adonis, just what Rocky would do with him. And now Stallone appears to have retired the character, and each and every Rocky movie has been mined for nostalgia and pathos, it’s time to freeze frame that shit and cue Conti’s iconic score – the story’s over. But man, what a ride.