I’m not sure if it’s what the writers of Creed II intended, but they did make me care about one character in particular in this film. It’s just that it wasn’t Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone); it wasn’t Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), or his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) or his mother Mary (Phylicia Rashad). Neither was it old Ivan Drago (Dolph Lungren) returning to the story 30 years after he killed Adonis’ father Apollo and was then himself beaten in the ring by Rocky.
None of these characters especially grabbed me, even though in the case of Stallone, Jordan and Thompson they occupy fully written roles and do an admirable job bringing them to screen. Dare I say it, Stallone will bring a tear to the eye of many for his turn, especially at the film’s end.
No, the character who was the most sympathetic was one who was on screen for quite a lot of the film but had few words to say. He was Viktor Drago, Ivan’s son, as played by Florian Munteaunu.
That’s because Viktor is the real tragic victim here. Sure, he is tall, extremely muscly and a powerful boxer. Clearly he is a huge threat to Adonis in the ring. But Viktor is a puppet dancing on strings manipulated by his father Ivan, who is consumed by his loss to Rocky decades before. Ivan Drago’s defeat cost him respect and standing in the community. His wife left him. It appears he lives a modest life. His only way to regain his mana is to stage a comeback, only with his son fighting the son of Apollo Creed.
Ivan pushes his son relentlessly, like a drill sergeant. There is no time for fatherly warmth or encouragement. Viktor must become a warrior, destroy his opponent and revive his father’s reputation. In the ring, Viktor looks the goods and displays all the aggression you could wish to see. But at other times he looks rather wide eyed and innocent, pushed and prodded but perhaps not really sure what he’s about. At one point he sees his long estranged mother and the writers give us time to feel Viktor’s pain. He’s a young man who’s lost one parent’s love and the one parent who is ever present in his life seems too carried away by his obsessions to be a good father.
Compare this to the American side of the story. In the beginning of the film Adonis becomes world champion. His motivation in the title fight is that it seems his opponent has somehow taken ownership (in a bet? It’s not clear) of a favourite Mustang car. Not the most heart wrenching reason to strive for victory perhaps. Adonis is well thought of, well paid and lives very comfortably. His girlfriend Bianca, you may recall from the first Creed film, is deaf, but bright and talented and understanding of her partner’s boxer view of the world. When the couple move to California they take up in a spacious and expensive looking apartment. Adonis’ mother lives there, in what looks like a mansion. Even when a health scare comes along for a member of the Creed family, we see that they are wealthy enough to get the best possible care.
And Rocky? Balboa still lives in Philadelphia, dresses modestly, lives in his modest apartment and runs his restaurant. He’s not rich, and he is estranged from his son. But as we see, he lives in a city which reveres him still. The famous statue on the famous steps remind us of that.
So the fuel for the Adonis/Rocky side of the story is for Adonis to seek revenge for the death of father so many years before. That sounds like powerful stuff, and I suppose it is, but for all Michael B. Jordan’s talent I found the script too corny and the arc of the plot too predictable to really get my emotional hooks into it. Somehow Viktor, given less to say and with the audience knowing less about him, became more of a magnet for my emotional attachment.
There’s one other aspect of the film which is undeniable. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but director Steven Caple Jr gives us a full on, close up, bone-crunching view of the big fights. The sound of glove smacking chin or rib cage hits the viewer in the gut. It’s a visceral treatment for sure, and somehow unlocks the primeval attraction of boxing. I felt my stomach tighten and my pulse rate go up in the final scenes of the film.
At the end of all this I suspect Creed II will probably find a big audience. Both Jordan and Thompson are riding high in their careers right now and will attract younger movie goers while Stallone and Lungren (and one other surprise actor) will draw in the older crowd who watched the original Rocky movies way back when. You pretty much know where the film will take you, and indeed that’s where it ends up. The biggest surprise was Viktor, and credit to the writers for allowing us to feel close to this character. If you have been a fan of the Rocky films, you’ll probably enjoy this romp.