Creed II (PG13)
Starring Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren
Directed by Steven Caple Jr.
In the climactic fight in Moscow between next-generation squabblers Adonis Creed and Viktor Drago here, the ring commentator says this home truth about the famous dinosaur, Rocky Balboa, creaking in one corner. “He knows better than anyone how this same story played out three decades ago.”
Three decades ago in 1985's Rocky IV, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) went to Cold War hell in Russia to defeat and humiliate Soviet monster Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). This time, Drago's brutish raised-in-hate son, Viktor (Romanian ex-pro boxer Florian Munteanu), comes for the heavyweight title of Rocky's protégé and inner-city spiritual son, Creed (Michael B. Jordan). Ostensibly to restore family honour, but essentially to exact unfinished vengeance.
“My son will break your boy,” Papa Drago snarls in pent-up anger as he surprises his old nemesis in Rocky's naively peaceful Italian restaurant in Philadelphia. Lundgren, saddled throughout with a look of personal pain, is thankfully less a caricature and more a character here, despite his favourite English word being a still cartoonish “break”.
Oh, these pissed-off Russians. With Donald Trump, it's “no collusion”. But with Rocky, it's all collision as the bad blood between fathers spills over to the new line of sons, including even a proxy heir in Rocky's case.
Now, this movie is called Creed II. But technically, in terms of the sentimental look on Rocky's battered mug, trademark fedora, the sad-sack shrug he always gives and his aw-shucks way of doing everything and every scene and saying the same thing over and over again, it's actually Rocky VIII.
A likeable Rocky VIII which frankly isn't as good or as poignant as its predecessor 2015’s Creed. Director Steven Caple Jr's overstretched, predictable story isn't as urban-tight or gym-gritty as the first flick by helmer Ryan Coogler, due to the plot switching between working-class Philadelphia and sprawling-class Los Angeles after Adonis and Rocky have a fall-out and go their separate ways.
But here's the deal: Rocky VIII is still familiarly endearing due to the cozy, reassuring presence of co-writer/co-producer Sly and the natural appeal of Jordan whose generational and racial getting-along of opposites would surely shame narrow-minded Trumpites.
Yep, you heard it right. Since the very first Oscar-winning punch-up, Rocky, back in 1976, this is incredibly Rocky Movie No. 8. Everybody here — from old to young to even baby-ish — is once again pretty banged up in some way and in need of TLC (tender loving care) and wise old what-are-we-really-fighting-for homilies. “That guy broke things in me that ain't never been fixed,” Rocky warns Adonis about the permanent damage Papa Drago inflicted upon him ages ago as a foreshadow of a dire fate to come if Adonis takes on the bigger, meaner and way scarier Drago junior.
Fight flick fans, be advised though. This umpteen-quel, bookended by two pivotal boxing matches, contains first and foremost a longer roundhouse punch of heavy family drama followed secondly by a shorter uppercut jab of its requisite boxing scenes.
There's the Rock and the kid, of course. But Creed II primarily coasts on the superb chemistry between Jordan and Tessa Thompson (as Adonis's pregnant singer-wife, Bianca) while stuffing itself full of father-figure symbolism. When you get an actress with the cool quality of Thompson, you can explore a woman's side of the story that goes deep and conflicted as she stands by her man. And sorry, I'm being shallow here — girls and presumably guys too, there are also a lot of hot Michael B. Jordan bare bod shots to be punched happily by here.
After an indecisive first bout between the newfound foes which sees Adonis being pummelled to hospital-emergency condition, Viktor the behemoth challenges his targeted victim for a rematch while training like a mad man in the hellish streets of hard-knocks under an even madder man, his hell-bent-on-revenge dad. “When I say run faster .... run faster,” Ivan mercillessly orders his son with some bitter motivational pep talk thrown in about how his mother cruelly dumped them after his own defeat by Rocky back in ancient history.
Know what? You really feel sympathy for these two disturbed, isolated souls. I keep thinking, man, I really want to see this very fascinating dysfunctional-pop-and-son story entitled maybe Drago: The Simpsons Version where Ivan totally freaks out after losing the Father Of The Year award to Rocky too. But heck, what do I know — I've never taken a punch before; not even a fruit punch.
Quite justifiably, Bianca sees the big brute taunting her man and fears utter destruction. While Adonis, shell-shocked after being jackhammered by Viktor in the first beat down, wants to man up and set things right. The dude, fearful and uncertain, is plagued by the death long ago of his real dad, Apollo Creed, in the ring at the fists of Drago Senior in Rocky IV. He needs the return of Rocky, particularly the master's sagacious words, to calm his savage beast and regain his eye of the tiger.
“Remember why you're climbing those steps,” old Rock keeps reminding young Boulder about the hallowed journey up into the ring. Which is exactly what my renovation contractor told me one time about my brand new toilet.
At which point if you're a Rocky devotee, you'll know that you've seen many scenes here before. From the knockdowns to the knockouts to the crazily brutal training sequences — involving metal chains, giant tires, Jordan's insane abs, fire and ice — like it's the Game Of Bones, the fun here is to play “Hey, which Rocky movie is this bit ripped off from?”.
Which means that by now, the “R” in “Rocky” basically stands for “rerun” and “reunion” and, boy, this newest incarnation is punch drunk with nostalgia. Pics of Apollo Creed keep popping up — although the actor himself, Carl Weathers, is still very much alive and kicking somewhere. Rocky's white birth son in the series, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) — whom nobody remembers from 2006's Rocky Balboa – shows up too.
And fanboys and twisted cougar-loving addicts, dig this because this will totally blow your mind. Even Brigitte Nielsen turns up as Ludmilla, the fembot ex-wife of Ivan and hateful mom of Viktor, in a blast from the past so cold, harsh and downright weird that refrigerators will run for the sun. Her surprise appearance and her bizarre history as Stallone's actual former wife from the bad old days of the 1980s instantly put the retro cheese back into this venture and send it straight into Recycled Land.
Yet, somehow, like a country bumpkin being sweet-talked by Donald Trump, we just keep falling for the same schmaltz here.
Rocky's legacy may be pushed into a new direction by a more diversified cast here. But there's just something very stirring, uplifting and heartwarmingly universal, I tell you, about a good old underdog story. And something very triumphant and cathartic about a most violent way — basically being beaten into an unholy pulp — to get there. Kinda like smashing an old drawer, thrashing your bedroom or nailing a great divorce to start anew.
One good punch like this flick will take care of everything. (***1/2)
Photo: Warner Bros Pictures