In this age of sequels, prequels, reboots, sequels to prequels, and reboots of the prequel sequel, film criticism can wander into the realm of sports writing. Is Shazam 14: The Shazaminator Returns better than Shazam 12: The Dark Zam Rises? Does Robert Downey Jr. still have what it takes? Which do you like better, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Universe, or a kick to the head?
Spoiler alert: All the Shazam movies are going to be the same, Bobby Jr. checked out two Avengers movies ago, and I'll take the kick to the head. Which brings us to Creed II: At Least He's Not a Superhero.
- Sylvester Stallone (left) and Michael B. Jordan star in Creed II, the new Rocky movie.
I made that last bit up. The Rocky movies, beginning with the 1976 Best Picture Winner and continuing for five iterations over 14 years, never used subtitles. In a way, that's a more honest approach than Thor: The Dark World. Yes, this is the same movie, but this time, Rocky fights Mr. T.!
After a false start in 2005 with Rocky Balboa, written and directed by Sylvester Stallone ("Sly didn't have what it takes for a comeback!" says the sportswriter), the franchise (there's another sports term) was rebooted in 2015 by Ryan Coogler with Creed. Coogler cast Michael B. Jordan, who starred in the director's debut Fruitvale Station, as Adonis "Donny" Johnson, son of Rocky's frenemy Apollo Creed. Like his father, Donny wants to be the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, so he recruits Rocky to be his trainer, effectively casting Sylvester Stallone as Burgess Meredith. Maybe it took fresh eyes and a fresh ethnicity to breathe new life into the Rocky formula, but it clearly worked. Coogler subsequently got called up to the Big Show, directing Black Panther, where he cast Jordan as Killmonger, who is probably the best villain the MCU ever had.
With Coogler too expensive (industry rumors have him rebooting Space Jam with LeBron James) and Stallone reasserting his position as producer and writer, the team hired a new coach: Steven Caple Jr. As a result, Creed II is like the best parts of Rocky II-V hot glued together.
Donny, now going by Adonis, has achieved his dream of living up to his absent father by winning the heavyweight boxing championship with Rocky as his corner man. But there are a pair of visitors to the statue of Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art who are inspired in a different way than most tourists: Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu). If you will recall, in 1985's Rocky IV, Soviet superman Ivan Drago killed Apollo Creed in the ring, so Rocky had to undertake the mother of all training montages to seek revenge and win the Cold War. Ivan was so disgraced that his wife (played by Stallone's real-life ex-wife Brigitte Nielsen) left him. So now, he seeks revenge by pitting his son against Rocky's son-figure.
The Rocky formula goes something like this: 50 percent soapy family drama, 20 percent training montages, 10 percent Zulu sequences (the anticipation of the fight, in which tension is ramped up slowly, named for Michael Caine's 1964 film debut), and 20 percent men pummeling each other. To its credit, Creed II does vary from the formula by ramping up the training montage content to at least 30 percent. That's really what the audience is hungry for, right? Rocky's training montage, set to the No. 1 hit "Gonna Fly Now," was so compelling Philadelphia erected a statue to it.
The thing Rocky II-V were about was Stallone's star power. In the 1980s, people just couldn't get enough of the guy, whether he was training to defeat the Soviets in Rambo II-III, or training to defeat arm wrestlers in Over the Top. Stallone's still staggering around like a drunk in Creed II, but it's Jordan who is flexing. From his superhuman physique, I assume Jordan is doing crunches on a pile of money right now. He can hold the screen as well as any man alive in 2018, and when he gets a chance — such as when he's in a hospital bed after getting the crap knocked out of him on national television — he can act, too. Tessa Thompson is back as his love interest, the deaf musician Bianca, even though she has little to do but moon after him.
But that's okay, because this is a man's story about a man proving his manhood by beating another man into submission. This is a movie unafraid to use the Eiffel Tower as a phallic symbol. The Rocky ur-narrative is patriarchal capitalism propaganda par excellence, and obviously it still works for some people, even if Creed II struggles to go the distance.