YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Creed II / The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Updated: Jul 19, 2019

By Derek May:

YIN: Creed II

Whether you consider the latest installment of the iconic franchise as the eighth Rocky or the second Creed, the fact remains the series shows little sign of wear and tear. The sequel not only continues the development of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of Apollo and protégé of Balboa himself, it digs back thirty years to revisit Rocky’s all-time greatest villain—Ivan Drago. And while that might at first glance seem something of a gimmick, the results feel completely natural in the context of the film’s many rich themes.

The most overarching of these can be summed up in a single word: family. The diversity here is impressive, as new director Steven Caple Jr effectively pays respect to no fewer than six sets of familial conflicts, all seamlessly crafted around the requisite pugilistic bouts and training montages. Like many people, I was dismayed and concerned when Ryan Coogler announced he would not be returning to helm the sequel. But Caple proves more than up to the task, and brings the heart, hands, and pain that have made the most memorable films of the series endure.

To narrow down the family drama, the filmmakers focus on the sins of one generation being passed to the next. While the first film touched on this idea with Adonis struggling to come to terms with his late and absent father, the sequel extends to living up to that legacy. Adonis, having risen to a championship belt to take his place alongside Apollo and Rocky, struggles with what such success really means. And for the past thirty years, there has been one family waiting in the wings for the opportunity to show him.

Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is a broken man, having been disgraced and abandoned following his loss to Balboa (in Rocky IV). He sees a path to redemption through his son, Victor (Florian Munteanu)—bigger, badder, and stronger than even Ivan himself in his prime. Raised on revenge against Creed, Balboa, and the mothers (literally and figuratively) who discarded them, they nearly break Adonis as they did his father. And while that might seem like history lazily repeating itself, the filmmakers take that repetition and turn it to an advantage. We get to explore the emotional turmoil that dredging up the past takes, of choices regretted, and the impotence to move forward. Rocky tries, as any good father figure does, to keep his child from making the same mistakes he made; and like most parental attempts, it falls on deaf ears, as children far too often need to learn their errors for themselves.

If the first Creed was more about Adonis finding an identity, the second is about him finding a purpose. When Ivan killed Apollo, Rocky had clear motivation to fight. But with that score somewhat settled, what is Adonis really fighting for now? That question drives much of his journey, and like Rocky before him, he needs to dig down deep within himself and trust those in his corner to find his answer.

Paralleling Rocky II, Adonis marries his longtime love, hearing-impaired musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and starts a family of his own. And even here we see elements of generational sin which are too clever to spoil. All said and done, there’s hardly a character in the film who doesn’t struggle with that theme, and that’s the beauty and the strength at the heart of it.