When the credits rolled on 2006’s Rocky Balboa (aka Rocky VI) I was about as satisfied as a Rocky fan could be. Through six titles and 30 years, Rocky Balboa had not only washed away the bad taste of Rocky V (1990), it had beautifully circled the franchise back to its roots, to where we first met the Italian Stallion in the opening scenes of Rocky (1976) — beat up after a brutal fight and longing for Adrian.
How do you improve on that? I didn’t think anyone would even bother to try. Stallone was 60-years-old and barely got away with that last fight, so how could anyone even try to– who the hell is Ryan Coogler?
Fast-forward nine years and there stands Ryan Coogler, an up-and-coming director all of 29-years-old who wants to make his own Rocky movie. This can’t be good.
Not knowing anything about Coogler, the idea of someone other than Stallone having anything to do with that beloved character was terrifying. What I feared would happen is what ended up happening to the Star Wars franchise — they handed it over to someone (producer Kathleen Kennedy) who carried a grudge against the original, who wanted to “correct” the past, who wanted to film an “apology” for all the prior ideological impurities.
But when Creed arrived in theaters in 2015, within about ten minutes I knew that Coogler not only loved and respected this franchise, I knew he was the perfect director (and co-writer) to perform the resurrection. Coogler’s Rocky was still Rocky, and here we were — 39-years after we first met the palooka — and thanks to Coogler’s artistry, the palooka still mattered.
What a gift that was.
You see, when you get to be my age (I’m closing in on 53), time has already taken a lot of things away. And as those touchstones you took for granted as a younger man fade further and further away, you become more appreciative of, and, yes, sentimental about, the handful of ones that manage to hang in.
But they can’t suck.
Hanging in while sucking does not count.
The Law & Order franchise might be 30-years-old, but now it sucks. Stephen King might still be pumping out 2500 words a day, but they suck. Spectre sucked. Alien: Whatever the Hell That Was sucked. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Oh My God This Movie Sucks sucked. Terminator: Genisys not only sucked, it was spelled wrong. George Carlin’s dead. Sinatra’s gone. Gene Hackman retired. They’re putting overweight men in the Victoria’s Secret catalog…
What the hell do I have left?
All I got is Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, and Rocky Balboa.
May they live forever.
Thankfully, Rocky Balboa not only lives on in Creed II, he lives on in something that is even closer to a Rocky movie than the original Creed. You see, Creed II is basically a remake of Rocky II, III and IV. All the best elements of those iconic sequels are brought together in this sequel, which is as rousing as it is touching, as formulaic and predictable as you have come to expect, but in that very special way where you can’t wait to see what you know is gunna happen happen.
What stands out the most in Creed II, though, are the performances. Impossibly, rising Hollywood superstar Michael B. Jordan is even better here, and he’s backed by a 72-year-old Sylvester Stallone, who looks every day of it, which gives this beloved character an unspoken depth and poignancy, a history the whole world is familiar with, even when the camera is on his back.
Just as poignant is Dolph Lundgren, who returns as Ivan Drago. Balboa humiliated Drago (and won the Cold War — seriously, look it up) in 1985’s Rocky IV, and all the fallout, disgrace, and bitterness he has carried for 32 years can be seen in Lundgren’s lean, weather-beaten face and those haunted eyes. Unfortunately, Ivan has poured all of that into his own grown son.
Phylicia Rashad returns as Creed’s stepmother and has at least two great scenes.
Finally, there is the always underrated Wood Harris, whose twitchy energy does so much with so little.
I kind of hate movies that pass the baton, that ask me to accept that something is coming to an end and it’s time to move on. I don’t want move on. Moving on can kiss my ass. There is none of that in Creed II. Rocky Balboa may no longer be the lead character, but he is still the heart and soul of the series, and there are no “clever” callbacks in Creed II, no cheap Easter eggs, because this is not a franchise looking to shake off the past. Rather, it embraces, marinates in, honors, and builds on what came before.
Creed II is also about something bigger than a man doing what a man’s got to do. Like its predecessor, it is primarily about the vital importance of fathers, even surrogate fathers — a radical concept these days. Sons need their fathers, fathers need their sons, and that final scene between Rocky and his son, how moving and funny and perfect it is… Man it’s dusty in here.