Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films, that served as inspiration for Ryan Coogler’s Creed, have always found parallels between the sport of boxing and life. A challenger’s fight inside the ring, is also representative of his fight outside of it. A not-so-bright man’s fight to belong in society, a man’s fight to avenge the death of his friend, an African-American boy rising from a homeless shelter to embrace his father’s glorious legacy. Steven Caple Jr’s Creed II doesn’t steer far from how these films usually play out – there’s always a champion/challenger out there for our protagonist to beat. The matches happen like clockwork but it’s the conflict leading up to the contests, that make them interesting.
After standing his ground and nearly knocking out the world champion at the end of 2015’s Creed, Adonis Creed (a fabulous Michael B Jordan) is now a world champion. And like it usually happens in the movies, the man who killed his father (Dolph Lundgren returning as Ivan Drago), springs out of the shadows. Viktor Drago (real-life boxer Florian Munteneau) is the closest manifestation to a beast, who has been ‘raised in hate’ as Rocky Balboa puts it at one point. Viktor lives and breathes to avenge his father’s humiliation. Standing at about 6’4, he punches to shatter. Nothing less.
Creed II starts out as a film about generational acrimony, but it quickly settles into the familiar mould of a fighter against self-doubt. Around the halfway mark, Adonis is thrown into the deep-end with himself. He’s the world champion, but does he need to prove it to the world by beating this man, who looks significantly stronger and is hungrier for the title? Is it about avenging his father’s death and proving something to the world? Or is it about stretching his limits as a boxer, to find out what he’s made of? Creed’s mother shatters his illusion of ‘rewriting history’ with a single line: “don’t pretend this is about your father.”
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has his own demons to not let Adonis take the fight. “He broke things in me, that ain’t ever getting fixed. It’s not worth it,” Balboa tells Adonis, after he announces his decision to accept the challenge. There’s also the guilt of how Balboa didn’t ‘throw in the towel’ (that comes full circle in this film) after the full-of-hubris Creed tells him not to stop the fight, in spite of being pummeled by his Soviet counterpart. There’s no way Balboa will stand by Creed junior, as he enters the ring with another Drago. Stallone is also closer to the age when Burgess Meredith (Mickey) took him on as a protege, allowing him to embody the loneliness of that stage of his life.
Creed II is also about Adonis’s relationships outside the ring, and how they shape the fighter inside the ring. Adonis draws his strength from Bianca (a luminous Tessa Thompson), who fights a deteriorating hearing problem while pursuing her music career, ensuring she isn’t just the ‘supportive wife’. She spars with Adonis outside the ring, so he can fight for the right reasons, inside it. Not her, not Rocky, not for his late father, when Adonis enters the loneliness of a boxing ring, he’s fighting for himself. Caple Jr delves deep into the question – does a fighter make the man, or does the man make a fighter?
Creed II is a worthy sequel, to Ryan Coogler’s solid first film. Just like Balboa says to Creed at one point in the film, the makers ‘turn their brains off’ and write ‘from the heart’. The end product is a shamelessly sentimental magnum-opus that overshadows its silly contrivances and ‘formula’ with disarming integrity. Creed II is wholesome meal for the fans of Rocky films, including a gloriously shot training montage in the Californian desert. In a film that hinges on his ability as an athlete, Michael B Jordan successfully personifies a fighter’s eternal struggle with himself. Is he good enough? Will he last the next round? There’s only one way to find out.
After all, it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It always has been.