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The special screening of Creed II that I attended allotted two rows for the press. The remaining seats were filled by folks organizers evidently brought in to whoop it up. And why not whoop it up? Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is a handsome, chiseled warrior who puts his heavyweight boxing title and his life on the line against a massive Russian puncher. Donnie is the Greatest American Hero for the new millennium.
Esteem for traditional male roles brings a different reason to appreciate Creed II, however. Whether its creators (Sylvester Stallone co-wrote the screenplay) were making a statement or merely filling in the scenes between the jaw-jabbing and rib-racking, the boxing film wrestles with manhood and fatherhood. In fact, Creed II is principally a drama about men and their families.
To understand any family drama, you have to know the family history—and the Rocky film franchise goes back several cinematic generations. Rocky battled Apollo Creed (that’s Donnie’s father) in Rocky and Rocky II, but they became friends. In Rocky IV, Rocky trained Creed for a match against Russian champ Ivan Drago. Creed is killed during the bout, so the Philadelphia brawler himself fights and defeats Drago in the Soviet Union.
In Creed II, Donnie is enjoying success as the heavyweight champion when the Goliath-size fighter Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren, reviving his role), challenges him for the title. While he weighs the risk, Donnie learns his fiancée, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is pregnant. Bianca is understandably concerned about their future.
“I don’t know if we’re ready,” she tells Donnie, fretting over her positive pregnancy test.
“Let’s get ready, then,” Donnie replies without hesitation. He wants to be a father and to fight.
As Donnie’s surrogate father, Rocky (Stallone) isn’t sure Donnie should square off against Viktor. But Donnie’s mother (Phylicia Rashad) knows he won’t win or survive without “Uncle” Rocky in his corner. She sends Rocky a sonogram of her unborn granddaughter with a handwritten message about her son: “He needs you.”
Big ol’ bruiser Viktor needs some fatherly love, too, but isn’t getting any. Ivan wants only for his son to “break” Donnie in order to restore glory to Russian boxing, honor to the family name, and hope to his marriage. Ivan blames his wife’s (Brigitte Nielsen, also reviving her role) prior abandonment of the family on the shame stemming from his loss to Rocky, and hopes Viktor’s success will bring her around again. (Here’s an instance where art and life get tangled: Stallone and Nielsen exchanged wedding rings a month after Rocky IV was first released, but their marriage suffered a TKO before Rocky V hit the big screen.)
Rocky is estranged from his own grown son, but the coming birth of Donnie’s child stiffens his resolve to make amends. The film portrays flawed fathers, but clearly idealizes men who work hard, sacrifice themselves, and show tenderness to their family.
Hmm. I wonder where that ideal came from.
Creed II is not a great film, but it succeeds at building up predictable yet glorious moments—the best of which might be Bianca’s unexpected singing engagement. Boxing violence, language, and a scene of sensuality make the PG-13 movie unsuitable for younger viewers. Still, a portrait of manhood not designed according to the modern blueprint, as well as a distinctive pro-life thread, make it a film worthy of some whooping.