Rocky movies are always a bit blunt, to say the least. They end with American flags on shoulders and fists in the air and those brass horns piping out their famous triumphant tune all the way up to the stadium ceiling. That’s not to say these movies are unintelligent; they’re just very simple. You know exactly how you’re supposed to feel at all times.
The villains of the series are that dynamic in microcosm. Throughout Rocky Balboa’s reign at the top of the card, he entered the ring against a series of thugs, lugs, pro wrestlers and Communists. The most nuanced antagonist of the Rocky series was Apollo Creed, especially in Rocky II, but even he fell into classic sports-movie tropes. You never really wanted him to win.
The least-nuanced antagonist in Rocky history is Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. He does a lot of bad guy stuff in that movie, including a) killing Apollo Creed in the ring, b) taking steroids, c) having spiky blond hair and d) being from the Soviet Union in the 80s. It’s impossible to sympathize with or understand Drago. He’s barely a character, so it’s amazing that Creed II ret-cons him into someone real-seeming and interesting, and turns his son into one of the most sympathetic sports-movie opponents in recent memory.
Creed II follows up the exceptional 2015 revival by throwing us back into the ring with Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky-movie icon Apollo Creed. Adonis is still chasing the world championship with new fiance Bianca (Tessa Thompson again, still great), old coach Rocky (Sly Stallone keeps up his win streak in this part) and a healthy dose of family legacy in tow.
Add to the mix the return of Ivan Drago and his son Viktor, here to challenge Adonis for the title and establish the fight of the century. It would be easy to mark the return of these two as hacky nostalgia attempts, but Ivan Drago isn’t a communist cardboard cutout anymore, and neither is his son. These guys are full-fledged antagonists (different than out-and-out bad guys), and they’re the main reason Creed II is worth the price of admission.
The opening scene of Creed II advertises its subversive villain strategy to great effect. While the first movie brought us in through an underground fight scene starring Adonis, the sequel opens with Viktor waking up to begin his daily training regimen. He rolls out of bed, gulps some orange juice and trudges out into the eastern European fog to greet his famous dad. There’s nothing about the scene that communicates they’re bad guys or up to no good; it’s just a son working out with his father. Viktor and Ivan don’t start the movie as villains. They start it as people. It’s uncommon for a Rocky movie.
Granted, large portions of Creed II are pretty dumb. The dialogue is expository and the motivation for Ivan and Viktor to recapture their glory is pretty lame, but when it comes down to the presentation of these guys, the movie goes above and beyond most other sports movies. In Rocky IV, Ivan Drago was cartoonish and absurd, but here, he’s weathered and battered and dangerous-feeling. Viktor doesn’t have many lines, but his physical presence matches Michael B. Jordan’s to the point where it almost has charisma in and of itself. He’s a huge man, but he delivers a great performance with his eyes, sometimes communicating worlds of hurt and anger and rage and vengeance across just a few seconds. You can see the heart buried beneath Viktor’s wide swaths of muscle, and that makes the movie’s boxing scenes between the him and Adonis feel complicated and tense as an audience member.
Even though the action here doesn’t have the flourish Ryan Coogler brought to the original Creed, each fight tells a compelling story. Adonis and Viktor are a thrilling pair in the ring, and best of all, putting Sly Stallone and Dolph Lundgren in each fighter’s respective corner (Lundgren’s a way better Drago now than in Rocky IV) gives each fight a second layer of strategy, tactics and emotion. It’s deeper than just two guys punching each other. It’s totally unexpected, but totally welcome.
Viktor Drago might not have the complex motives of Black Panther’s Killmonger or Thanos from Infinity War, but he’s another recent example of 2018 bringing us thoughtful blockbuster villains. You might not root for Viktor, but you care about him (and you care about his dad!). That’s the mark of something fair and effective. Creed II might not be the smartest fighter in the ring, but it brings a lot of heart. Keep your head on the swivel—this one has lots of ways to hit you.