“The belt ain’t enough. You need a narrative. One that sticks to the ribs.”
[Buddy Marcelle, to Adonis]
“Don’t you pretend this is about your father.”
[Mary Anne Creed, to Adonis]
A truly notable aspect of the original Rocky is that there is essentially zero background given for any character. A quote of advice his dad gave him and a brief glance at picture on his mirror of himself as a child is it for Rocky himself. The fact Stallone was able to make people love this character based entirely on what happens in that one film and not on some sentimental life circumstance, like being an orphan, is amazing. With seven subsequent stories, each movie serves as its own background for the next and that is why the franchise has been so successful over four decades.
In this respect, Creed II is such an avalanche of sequel (I can’t think of a better noun than that) I needed two passes to take it all in. I didn’t mind, of corse, as I watch all Rocky movies over and over and had zero doubt I would want to see this one at least twice in the theater.
The reason I allude to above that I needed two viewings is what makes this movie special. The first viewing I was so consumed with the continuation of the Rocky IV story that I had a hard time assimilating the Creed narrative. Rocky IV, while not the best of these films, is the most re-watchable to me and is exploding with personality. You can’t have an all-time American sports movie icon vs. a roided-up Russian in the 80s with death on the line and not get a movie to remember. And that fight is the best sporting event in film to me. So in every scene in Creed II with any combination of Drago and Rocky, I was locked in like a fat guy watching the dessert table at a church potluck.
As such, everything that happens with Donnie and Bianca and even Rocky’s story arc from Creed needed a second viewing to truly appreciate. With substantial background from two movies to consider, my brain just couldn’t take it all in. And as I watched it a second time in the theater back in November it was then I realized this movie is truly two sequels in one and that I, personally, needed to see it twice: once with “Rocky IV Part 2” eyes and once with “Creed I Part 2” eyes. It is through this lens I will be giving this review, which is packed with spoilers.
Rocky IV, Part 2
As I said in my Rocky rankings back in November, I deeply and significantly appreciated that in Creed the producers masterfully blended an old story with a new one, giving fresh life and a younger audience to one of the great stories we have in America cinema. I didn’t assume that Creed would pay meaningful homage to Rocky. I knew he was in it but I assumed this new Michael B. Jordan character would be the dominant focus and the Rocky universe would play a minor role. That didn’t happen. Stallone’s Rocky was prominent and major and minor allusions to the previous six movies were everywhere.
This movie does the same, but on steroids. If you loved Rocky IV, you can’t help but adore the bulk of this movie. It’s literally Apollo Creed’s son vs. Ivan Drago’s son in a boxing ring. That as a premise is epic in and of itself, and I know that word is overused these days so I use it sparingly and accurately here.
But Rocky’s history with Drago is even more intense. The moment in the trailer when Rocky comes face-to-face with Drago in the ring for a Donnie/Viktor bout flooded my soul with joy and is without question made me want to see this move more than any other trailer has for any other movie ever. My favorite moment in the actual movie is when Drago stops by the restaurant to chat with Rocky, at which point I nearly passed out from all of the oxygen leaving my head causing my heart to beat a gazillion miles a hour. This whole scene immediately became an unforgettable part of Rocky lore. And the crowning jewel of that scene is when Drago opens up his dialogue by noticing that there are no pictures of his fight with Rocky on the wall, as there are of all of Rocky’s other legendary victories. Rocky replies, “No, there ain’t nothing from that in here.”. Later, Rocky is trying to talk Donnie out of taking the Drago fight and he says, “He broke things in me that ain’t never been fixed.” Both of those quotes not only caused me to feel deep emotion, they both do something that I profoundly appreciate: they make me love Rocky IV even more. Knowing the impact of the events of that fight for Rocky 33 years later only serves to make those events even more entertaining. This is something I am hoping these extra Harry Potter plays and movies would do but have not yet1.
Something this movie does that Rocky IV didn’t do is to give Drago and his son actual character. Drago was sensational as the villain in Rocky IV in one snese, but he was pretty flat and cartoony (a legit critique I made for Rocky IV in general in my last articles) and only had like 7 lines, half of which aren’t in English.2 Drago and Vicktor by contrast are not simple characters in this installment and they even make you feel for them at the end. I was thrilled to see Viktor and his father as humans, and not just “Bad Russian Men.” Even if the plot to achieve that was a tad cheesy and the standard “They are messed up because the mother/wife left them” trope. The moment at the climax where you think Drago is going to walk out as Viktor’s mother did, but instead throws in the towel, is tearjerking. And while it was quite different in key ways, that simple action also took Rocky fans back to IV.
Lastly I will add that even though the Rocky references (both subtle and unmistakable) are mainly from IV, there are plenty of plot points and dialogue that recall the other movies. A huge one is the fact that Adonis fights and loses and then wins the rematch, which has echoes of Rocky III. A more obvious one that I loved with my whole heart was when Donnie was extremely nervous about proposing and asked Rocky what he said to Adrian. Rocky quotes himself from II directly: “I asked her if she wouldn’t mind marrying me too much,” which is classic Rocky vernacular. I do think they missed a fantastic moment to have Rocky recall that he asked her what she was “doing the next 40 or 50 years” prior to that, but maybe they felt it would have made the scene less poignant. As a Rocky fan, I feel Rocky’s entire marriage proposal to Adrian would have been worth quoting.
Creed 1, Part 2
Not to be diminished by the Rocky IV hoopla is how beautifully and satisfying Donnie and Bianca’s narrative is advanced. After one viewing I wasn’t sure how I felt about all of these plot points, but after I had a chance to focus on them my second viewing (instead of the ‘other’ sequel), I lauded them.
First, Donnie being nervous about proposing allowed the callback to Rocky II, but it was also not lost on me that this cocky, smooth-talking, champion boxer was overwhelmed and flummoxed by the moment and needed help. This was a touching scene and made Donnie a relatable everyman for a moment, and hence, a better character. This kind of humility will always endear me.
And the storytelling wrenches the heart even more when this young couple has to deal with the possibility that their daughter inherited hearing loss from the mother. The moment when Bianca sees her husband break down when their daughter doesn’t respond to the test was some of the finest acting I saw in 2018. One of my brothers (the same one who allegedly tears up at the end of Rocky II, but I still will not name) texted me after he saw the movie to say that he shed tears at several moments but this was the toughest one.
For my money the most emotional moment was also on his list: Donnie visiting Apollo’s grave at the end. I wept for sure. A close second is also at the very end when Rocky visits Robert and his grandson he doesn’t know. It saddened me that they did not include Robert in Creed but for one passing comment, but I assumed it was because Sage Stallone had recently died and it would have been awkward for real life Sly Stallone for his fictional son (once played by Sage) to be included. Why else would Robert not show up when Rocky had cancer? As they kept mentioning him in this sequel, it was killing me that Rocky was estranged from him and his only grandchild. Rocky was a family man before Adrian died and it is almost perverse for him be going through life with only a surrogate son in Donnie. So when he predictably travels to Canada in the very last scene, I beamed like a new parent at a newborn child. I also nearly jumped out of my skin when it was revealed that Robert was again portrayed by Milo Ventimiglia, reprising that role from Balboa. My wife will testify that as Rocky got close to the house, I kept nudging her and whispering “Will it be Milo? Will it be Jack?” (His name on This Is Us) to the point of being annoying. Having Milo and Michael B. Jordan in the same movie should be illegal it’s so good.
One Unified Movie
I do not want to imply the movie was fragmented at all. The writing and direction blended the two sequels magnificently, like two lines that run so closely together they are distinct yet clearly connected, and that touch at key points. Perhaps the best illustration of this is how both Donnie and Rocky cannot escape the demons of the 1985 Creed-Drago fight and specifically Apollo’s death: Rocky for not throwing the towel and Donnie for never knowing his father. They produced one sequel to two classic movies so well so that I am tempted to put this chapter in the Rocky saga near the top of the rankings, just behind the original. It is that good. The heart of Rocky and the spirit of Creed are interwoven together like magic and I am excited that now it is on Blu-Ray and DVD, I can watch it as many times as I want.
Five Stars out of Five