Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren. Directed by: Steven Caple Jr.
When Creed came out three years ago, the second film by Ryan Coogler with a star-making turn for Michael B. Jordan is was by no means a sure-fire hit. The Rocky series had already ended (twice) on uneven and silly footing, and yet with Creed, the series was reborn, another engaging entry into the series.
With Black Panther taking up all his time, here Coogler is relegated to executive producer, while Stallone is back to writing, producing and starring as the older bruiser. This time around Steven Caple Jr. directs this instalment, after having made his name with Sundance favourite The Land.
There’s no real point summing up the plot of the film, since we all know it. Needless to say, the weight of Rocky IV looms over everything, as Adonis “Donnie” Creed prepares to fight Viktor Drago.
From the off, the loss of Coogler is felt by the film: gone is the style of the first film, but Caple Jr., decides that sheer force of nature will cover up the film’s inherent flaws. Creed mirrored the original Rocky and twisted it – Mickey / Rocky, Apollo / Pretty Ricky, even elements like the budding romance between Donnie and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca mirrored Rocky and Adrian’s.
Rocky IV was always the sillier of the Rocky films, in which Rocky symbolically ends communism by punching a Russian monolith in the face after the Russian punches Uncle Sam to death. This time around, the story doesn’t focus on Rocky and Donnie so much as it does on the discourse between fathers and sons.
While Creed was as much a vicious boxing match of a film, it had emotional weight behind it, the father-son dynamic of Rocky battling age and illness along with the weight of expectation on Donnie. Here the drama is much more a ‘will he won’t he’ that never manages to get the emotion where it needs.
While Caple Jr., has some good ideas – the brutal first confrontation between Drago Jr and Creed Jr has a first-person POV motif that bashes your head until you feel like you’ve gone a couple of rounds there’s never anything in it that creates the woozy nature of the one-shot fight from the first one.
What surprises most is how good Dolph Lundgren is as an older, meaner Ivan Drago. Years after his loss he’s poor, aged and stoic, what surprises is that unlike Stallone, who was always a great actor (Rocky, First Blood, Cop Land), Lundgren wasn’t, but here he manages to tap into something fierce and painful with very little to say. Similarly, the less is more approach works for the antagonistic role of Florian Munteanu as Viktor.
In lacking the emotional heft of Creed, even with elements like the continuing regressive hearing loss of Thompson’s character and the raging regret of Rocky, there isn’t anything as intense or meaningful as the ringside pep talk in the final fight, but what it lacks in that it makes up for in sheer brutal force.
Plus it helps that Jordan, Stallone and Thompson are at their best, and moreover the original themes of the series work the best – the sheer nostalgic joy that comes from hearing the fanfare is hard to deny and the film works best when it plays to the series strengths. It does, however, feel like this is probably the final film they can do in the series, but with eight innings that isn’t too bad at all.
Even so, there are awards-worthy things about the film, not least Thompson’s overlooked turn as the brilliant Bianca, and Jordan himself as the main man. Plus Ludwig Goransson’s killer soundtrack and original song ‘I Will Go To War’ is a great piece of music. It might not be the worst of the series (think Rocky V) it might not be the best (think Rocky and Creed) but it’s certainly one of the finer entries into the series and as such, and as Balboa himself would say – not bad, not bad at all.