Tom Jolliffe on Creed 2…
When Ryan Coogler delivered Creed to the world, it took most people completely by surprise. A spinoff to a franchise that was nearing 40 years old, which had been adequately closed in 2006’s, Rocky Balboa. There wasn’t really much demand for the film, but he had a vision. It was this vision which inspired Stallone to revisit a character he’d tucked up and put to bed. To Sly, Balboa was a satisfying conclusion to Rocky’s arc.
What Coogler did was craft a film with energy, and though it followed a formula Stallone had laid out in the very first Rocky, it managed to do so in a way which felt fresh, with an engaging new protagonist. Granted, Rocky (largely thanks to Stallone’s heartfelt performance) does steal the movie. He has the benefit of being pre-established. A legend. People understand the genesis of Creed because it has spawned from Rocky. That the film was so successful on all fronts is testament to Coogler as an important young director. This was his follow up to Fruitvale Station, a gripping real life story. Under almost any other director it may have been too reliant on what’s happened before, too hackneyed, or lack any of the flair injected into the film. Creed has a distinct look within the franchise, even if it has to get to points on the map you expect, such as the training montage, fights, etc. The long take fight sequence for example was a great way of injecting something fresh into what we’ve already seen.
With such success (particularly at the box office), it’s inevitable that a sequel is now on the cards. Sly appears to have set his stall out. The film will dig further into Rocky IV and see the return of Ivan Drago. What is less clear is whether it will also involve Drago Jr. What interests me most is whether Sly Stallone will make a phone call to Brigitte Nielsen. That would be interesting (if only as a fly on the wall). In any case, Dolph Lundgren is prepping his gloves to return. That seems nailed on. So how should Sly approach the film?
It’s clear that this is slipping out of Coogler’s hands and returning to the godfather of the franchise. Sly is writing. At this stage in his career I would say Coogler is best off concentrating on establishing himself in newer material. He’s already well under way with Black Panther, the most interesting looking MCU film in quite some time. After that he should perhaps pull away from blockbusters and go back to dramatically powerful fare again. Retain full creative expression and continue to hone his dramatic heft. You don’t want to find yourself stuck in blockbusters, as you can only go to a point with pushing yourself dramatically. The studios will always set a bar lower than the capabilities of a really good director, and Coogler is just that. He’s lucky in a sense that Black Panther is a second tier character. He’s been allowed to write it too. However, if he gets elevated say, to a first tier MCU film, he’ll find stricter parameters in place.
Coogler is out the picture. The person now most equipped to take on the sequel is indeed Sly Stallone. Finding another young, fresh and vibrant director, who can handle the weight of this legendary franchise, is a tough ask. He struck gold handing Creed off to Coogler. Pulling in someone fresh from the indie world doesn’t always pay off. In any case, what was done in Creed, the surprises it delivered, and the way in which it re-moulded the first Rocky, cannot be done again. If we go back to the Rocky franchise as an example, the first film did something. It wasn’t greatly original even then but it was wholehearted and engaging. Sly would essentially repackage the film in the first sequel. Rocky II is good but it’s a pale imitation of the first, and it probably ranks as the second least memorable film in the franchise (behind the best forgotten fifth film). Whilst the 80’s gave us a more exploitative and cartoony couple of instalments, the over the top nature of them made them hugely popular and somewhat iconic (in no small part thanks to imposingly cartoonish villains).
The plan is obviously to dip back further into the world of the Cold War infused fourth film. Now, they obviously can’t follow the exact formula. The film is possibly the most popular and visually iconic sequel, even if it’s the most hollow. Running well under 90 minutes, it’s essentially a long music video with a couple of fight sequences placed in. That’s not to say that in its simplicity, and among the goofy Reagan-era political gesturing, it’s not very well made. As a comic book piece it’s extremely good. Visually it’s resplendent and the soundtrack is ace. Dolph Lundgren is a great villain. Almost every line he has is memorable. It’s the stuff of ironic geek T-shirts. Sly intrinsically knows how to get an audience rooting for Rocky. Even if he sleepwalks the role as he sort of did in Rocky IV. All the attempt at character work was merely recycled from the third film when Rocky dealt with the loss of Mickey and having to find the edge to overcome a superior opponent.
There are some ideas Sly will have to be careful not to go back to. Rocky’s dealt with loss in a lot of the films now. He’s also dealt with mortality in Creed. Of course, it’s now Adonis Creed’s franchise. Sly needs to step back more and allow Adonis more of the limelight. As a character he’s come to terms and accepted his lineage. There are avenues now to explore with holding the legacy and confronting the person who took a father he never knew away from him. That’s an avenue. As far as Drago goes. He cannot be a cartoon villain again. He can’t be the mono-syllabic monolith. One aspect that might work well is to humanise Drago somewhat. Make him more than the atypical, unabashedly villainous Rocky opponent. The encounter will be there still. It needs to happen. A piece of cathartic engagement that is not only deep within the soul of Creed, but Drago (or indeed Drago Jr.). That depiction of the Russian soldier as stony, robotic and driven by command is stuck in 1985. It won’t work now. Drago has to change. His son has to be a different mould too.
The key here is nostalgia. You’re not going to have the same dramatic impact as Creed. It had surprise value. It also had its nostalgia too, but it came out of the blue. Critically and commercially it exceeded expectation. That now means expectation levels raise slightly for the sequel. You have to service your fans just the right amount. They’ve stuck by Rocky for seven films. You need to deliver what they expect, but it can’t rest entirely on pre-established ideas. Rocky Balboa was a good example of getting a nice balance of rose-tinted nostalgia and forwarding the arc of the central character. There are very little areas left to take Rocky himself, which is why you make him step back somewhat which will allow Sly to do two things: further establish Adonis, but also enable stronger focus on his direction (should he take that job). We know the core of what will happen. We expect a training sequence or two. We expect the climactic fight. The rest needs to be ably filled.
One other area to look at, is possibly one point of contention from Creed. The run-time. Clocking at just over two hours, Creed was longer than all the films. Just marginally more than the original. Whilst Creed 2 should by no means go the Rocky IV route of scraping off all layers of characterisation and montaging the whole film to a condensed 80 or so minute, the film needs to be fairly short and sweet and come in comfortably under two hours. There are avenues to take these characters, but there’s not enough leverage here to warrant a film that exceeds two hours. There needs to be a pace here and it needs to be brisk, fun, warming, with just enough depth to leave a good impression and satisfying arc for notably Creed himself, and perhaps the Dragos.
Another avenue for success could well be to push Lundgren’s capabilities. He’s played a few character roles in more recent times in films almost no one bar a Dolph-ite (me, for example) will have seen. He’s shown layers as a performer no one expects him to have. He’s got more in his arsenal than people who know him almost exclusively from what he did from 85-92 (and possibly The Expendables) may realise. If Sly can push that and utilise it, there are surprises to be had.
Time will tell what comes out of all this. Sly’s success rate is pretty good with Rocky so you would expect him, as much as anyone, to be respectful to the legacy, and you would trust him not to make the errors he made in the fifth film for a second time. With safe assurance though, we know Sly can make us root for Creed and Rocky and the final spectacle is guaranteed to deliver.