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Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather face down their opponents in the ring as they tackle the disjointed Creed II, a film about the cold war or masculinity or slavery or fathers and sons or babies or something.
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There’s a scene from an old Judge Dredd comic in which Dredd is struggling with a sense of disillusionment in the laws that he has sworn to uphold. In an effort to do some soul-searching, he tracks down his former mentor, still an active-duty Judge, and asks him what he should do about the questions that have been plaguing him:
“Oh, those questions. Yeah, we all have to deal with those.”
“Really? Well, what do you do about them?”
“Me? I order my boots a size too small. Hurts all day long. And when my feet are hurting I don’t have time to ask those kinds of questions.”
I kept thinking about this exchange while I was watching Creed II. There’s a similar theme woven throughout about the relationship between our tangible problems and our existential problems and how one often serves as the solution to the other.
This is a film in which the solution to depression is a crying baby and the solution to a broken light is a father reconnecting with his son.
There has always been a blue-collar Puritanical streak running through the Rocky movies in which the work is the cure for the mind. Rocky goes the distance with Apollo and eventually beats him by structuring his life around a single goal and committing to that end, whatever the cost in physical exertion and drudgery (thankfully summed up via thrilling montage). This becomes a rising tide in his life which uplifts all of his other needs and desires.
All of the succeeding Rocky films, including the Creeds, have responded to this ethos in some way. Rocky 3 challenged it by claiming that the opposite was true and that Rocky needed to regain the “eye of the tiger” in order to win. The most dramatic turn in that film is when he decides, between training montages, to get his head on straight and train right. After that, Clubber Lang is basically a pushover and gets dominated in the final fight.
Rocky 4 is complicated for several reasons, not least of which because it is not actually a very good movie, but it seems to basically confirm what Rocky 3 is saying. With the added bonus of tree-chopping and cart-pushing.
Rocky 5 doesn’t care but that’s okay because nobody cares about Rocky 5. And Rocky Balboa is basically just chasing after the first two movies.
Coogler took an interesting approach in the first Creed film by turning the montage into physical therapy and the final fight into therapy-therapy. The movie does not allow Adonis Creed to win until he has confessed his feelings of abandonment to his surrogate father. This is a neat assimilation but one that just feels like good screenplay writing rather than something particular to the Rocky franchise. A lot of the first Creed film feels this way which lets it stand alone as simply being a solid piece of film-making in its own right.
And then there’s Creed II, which I think might be the most interesting of the bunch. Look at the way that Adonis trains for his first fight with Viktor Drago. He commits. He sweats and stretches and pushes his body to its limits. But he loses because he isn’t willing to go any farther than that.
Conversely, during his next montage, he has to pass out in the middle of the desert in order to push forward. It’s not about the improvement of the body here. It’s about the suffering that it causes. Adonis has spent the whole film up until this point treating Drago as an existential problem. But eventually he’s going to have to step in the ring with him and he can’t win unless he physically batters Viktor into bloody submission. In actuality, that’s a practical problem. It needs to be punched away, not emotionally reconciled. The work is the cure for the mind. But the work needs to be totally exhausting to be effective.
Meanwhile, Rocky is on the opposite path. He’s still trying to suffer his way to success, to live in penance for all the people who’ve died on him, including Apollo. He thinks he can live correctly by living so small that his biggest concern is that damned broken light. Really, he needs to step out of his self-flagellating asceticism and go be with his family. He’s not a fighter anymore and he can’t solve his problems like a fighter does. (Well, a fighter according to these movies at least).
There’s a lot to this movie but I think that its messier qualities are going to drag down its reputation as time goes by. Which is a shame because I actually dug it a heck of a lot more than I did Coogler’s Creed (still a great movie, don’t get me wrong), and specifically because of its additional complexity.
It’s sort of interesting to see the Rocky franchise collapse into nostalgic, self-referential desperation and rebuild itself into…well, a metaphor for itself, actually managing to shift the focus without forgetting what story it’s trying to tell. Granted, it’s not a one-man show, but it’s a franchise that managed to indirectly talk about a version of “the African-American Experience”(TM) without being didactic or uncomfortably nostalgic and ALSO talk about the world since the Cold War.
Incidentally, poking around Wikipedia to freshen my memory about the franchise led me down a dark path through the woods that ended up with…Rocky the Musical. Unfortunately, only the German version has a video, which is just a commercial: