I’ll be the first to admit that, despite growing up with them, the Rocky movies just don’t do it for me. My mom loves them; hell, everybody loves them, and rightfully so. I’m just the outlier. The Rocky franchise is iconic. Sylvester Stallone’s seminal filmmaking changed not just the subgenre of sports and boxing movies but culture, in the broadest terms. Not just nationally, but globally. Everyone knows Rocky’s name. Everyone knows his music. And, in one way or another, everyone wants to go the distance, just like Rocky.
So why don’t Stallone’s movies work for me? I really couldn’t tell you. It’s probably the same reason why I don’t care for “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Ȍyster Cult, another one of my mom’s favorites. I know it’s a good song, I know there’s a reason it’s used in everything from Supernatural to Halloween, but every time I hear it, I sigh and slump and wait until it’s over. Maybe that’s the crux of it, with Rocky and Stallone: Over the course of six movies, they just make me tired.
So I can say without hesitation that the smartest thing Stallone has ever done with the Rocky franchise is hand it off to a new generation of filmmakers who have been able to continue the Rocky philosophy while centering it around a protagonist who is infinitely more compelling and relevant to today’s world than an aging, barely coherent Balboa. 2015’s Creed, directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan as the lost son of Apollo Creed, was the perfect spinoff — not a rehash, but a reinvention. In a way, it was Coogler’s test run for Black Panther, in that he transformed what has always been a white man’s story in American popular culture, with all of its troubling subtext, into something fundamentally black. (For more on this, read Adam Serwer’s excellent article, “How Creed Forever Changed the Rocky Series.”)
Directed by up-and-comer Steven Caple Jr. and co-written by Stallone and Juel Taylor, Creed II continues this trajectory, paying homage to the movies that came before while also deftly subverting them. In many ways, Creed II is a sequel to both Creed and Rocky IV, forcing Adonis “Donnie” Creed to simultaneously reckon with both future and past. His daughter is born at the same time he suffers a literal crippling defeat at the hands of the son of the man who killed his father in the ring. Though he thought he found himself at the end of Creed, Donnie spends much of Creed II feeling more lost than ever because he doesn’t know why he needs to climb those steps to fight Viktor Drago. Is it revenge for his father? Is it to secure his legacy as a boxer in his own right, to make his mother, fiancée, and daughter proud of him? Or is it just pride?
As for the answer, come on: I’m not going to tell you that. With Creed II’s release on Blu-ray / DVD this week, I highly suggest you go on Donnie’s journey with him, because it truly is a journey. One of the most interesting things Creed II does is re-evaluate masculinity and pride when the cost of prioritizing them is a man’s relationships with his spouse and children — not just through Donnie, but through Rocky and Ivan Drago as well. It’s a theme you can’t miss, and one clearly on Stallone’s mind from the start. In one of the featurettes, Dolph Lundgren says that he agreed to play Drago again after he received a short text from Stallone that just said “sins of our fathers” — an apt description of the movie as a whole, if a bit simplistic.
But even I’ll be the first to admit that much of the magic of the Rocky / Creed franchise comes from its simplicity. Throughout Creed II’s four featurettes, everyone from Caple Jr. to real-life boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard emphasizes the inherent relatability of Rocky the underdog, forever battling the odds; Donnie the legacy, vying for his own place in history; and even the elder Drago, using the only thing he has left — his son — to take revenge on the world that left him behind. Caple Jr. says this story is Shakespearean, and he’s not wrong. But it is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker, and Stallone’s wisdom to put Rocky pretty firmly in the background (as evinced by the deleted scenes, the majority of which feature Rocky on his own), that Creed II feels so fresh when in reality it is a tale as old as time.
My own history with the Rocky franchise tells me I shouldn’t care about Creed or Creed II; thankfully, I’m not so set in my ways that I won’t allow myself to love them. Because I do. (I especially love Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, but to wax poetic about her would add about a thousand more words to this review.) And despite my apathy toward the previous installments, I truly do appreciate their legacy, particularly as Caple Jr. incorporates emotions from the originals into his film and turns them into the answer for which Donnie searches. That’s an achievement that’s harder than it sounds, and yet oh, so simple. Just listen for a certain music cue during the final fight.
It’ll give you chills.
Creed II is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms.