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'Creed II' punches back at how Russian characters are depicted in movies

'Creed II' punches back at how Russian characters are depicted in movies
Dolph Lundgren, left, and Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu play Ivan Drago and his son Viktor in "Creed II." (Barry Wetcher / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures)

In the new movie “Creed II,” the titular fighter faces a new opponent. He speaks Russian. His name is Drago.

Wait, wasn't that a plotline in the “Rocky” films?

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Yes, this summary sounds familiar — those of sequels and reboots often do, and "Creed II" is a sequel of a reboot, after all. In the follow-up to the 2015 hit, legacy boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) can't resist going toe-to-toe with Viktor Drago, the son and trainee of Ivan Drago, the former Soviet heavyweight who fatally knocked out Apollo Creed.

"Creed vs. Drago, Round 2: It is, as various on-screen sports pundits breathlessly remind us, the match-up the world has been waiting to see," wrote Times critic Justin Chang in his strong review of the film, which opened in theaters Wednesday. "But 'Creed II' seems well aware that, despite the resurgence of Russian hostilities in recent headlines, the world’s enthusiasm may not be shared by the wider moviegoing audience."

Indeed, the sequel steers clear of simmering tensions between the U.S. and Russia, which have dominated the news cycle since the 2016 presidential election. It's a strategic storytelling move that may pay off greatly at the Thanksgiving weekend box office.

“People go to the movies, especially a movie like this, to escape the news headlines,” MGM Motion Picture Group President Jonathan Glickman told The Times. “This wasn't just a commercial decision but also an artistic one.”

"Creed II" only faintly echoes the sentiments of the 1985 "Rocky IV." Released in the midst of the Cold War, it boasted a political agenda as loud as the flashy, star-spangled blazer that Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) donned in the ring. Ivan Drago was introduced as an indestructible, superhuman contender, equipped with steroids and state-of-the-art technology and, therefore, impossible to defeat.

Played by Dolph Lundgren and often dressed in a Soviet military uniform, Drago was robotic, expressionless and incapable of remorse after Apollo died in their fight. Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa then headed to Moscow to avenge the loss of his friend — and America's honor.

"Here is a flag-draped, David-and-Goliath scenario pitting boxer Rocky Balboa, America's rugged individualist, against Ivan Drago, a Soviet, collectivist, steroid-induced human killing machine," wrote Michael J. Strada and Harold R. Troper in “Friend or Foe?: Russians in American Film and Foreign Policy, 1933-1991.”

"Having it out in the ring represents even more than the United States versus the Soviet Union," their analysis continued. "The boxers represent rugged individualism versus collectivism, religious faith versus atheism, the human spirit versus mindless technology, honesty versus duplicity, and freedom versus control."

The heavy-handed message didn’t quite land with film critics at the time. "'Rocky IV' says that Soviets are simplistic animals, incapable of loyalty or of decent human behavior," wrote Times critic Sheila Benson in 1985. "Stallone adds an interesting codicil: They may be far superior technologically, but not to worry — technology is no match for a pure heart."

Nevertheless, "Rocky IV" became the highest-grossing installment of the five-film "Rocky" franchise, raking in $300 million worldwide. Drago has been referenced in everything from "Family Guy" and "Chuck" to a John Kerry interview in 2014, and it helped set the stage for decades of Russian villains on screen.

Dolph Lundgren, left, informs Sylvester Stallone of his post-fight life in "Creed II."
Dolph Lundgren, left, informs Sylvester Stallone of his post-fight life in "Creed II." (Barry Wetcher / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures)

All of this fades far, far into the background in "Creed II," which presents its once-robotic Russian rivals in a much more empathetic, humanizing light. Directed by Steven Caple Jr., the sequel takes a moving moment to zoom in on Ivan Drago who, upon losing to Rocky Balboa at the end of "Rocky IV," was banished to Ukraine and has spent three decades in shame and regret.

"Under the old USSR, everything was given to them by the state, and once you failed them, it's liable to be taken away," explained co-screenwriter Juel Taylor. "What happens when everything is contingent on you being successful, and you're not? How does that affect the next 30 years of your life?"

Drago tells Balboa that he's spent that time staging a comeback through the training of his son, Viktor (played by Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu). Yet for this second generation of Drago, the motivation to chase victory is personal, not patriotic. Unlike the "Rocky" films, the only flag-waving imagery in "Creed II" are the boxers’ respective garb in the ring. Not a single national anthem is ever played in this movie.

"In this case, the Russian background is really just a plot device to bring these people together, and it's not the major centerpiece it was in 'Rocky IV,' " said Irwin Winkler, who produced all of the "Rocky" and "Creed" films. "I think all of us grew up a little bit since then — it's been 30-something years since that movie."

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Dolph Lundgren, left, and Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu elicit quite a bit of empathy as father and son in "Creed II."
Dolph Lundgren, left, and Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu elicit quite a bit of empathy as father and son in "Creed II." (Barry Wetcher / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures)

The initial idea to revisit the Drago character was Stallone's, just after "Creed" was released in late 2015. However, he never entertained the thought of leaning into the political messaging that "Rocky IV" flaunted.

According to MGM Motion Picture Group’s Glickman, that decision wasn't necessarily made to pacify any box-office prospects, as Russia has become a major film market since the "Rocky" movies wrapped.

Instead, the new film reflects what cemented the original franchise as a crowd-pleaser. Just as the "Rocky" movies inverted the audience's initial evaluation of Balboa’s first opponent, Apollo Creed, the line between “hero” and “villain” disappears. Viktor Drago and Adonis Creed are not polar opposites; they're almost kindred spirits whose fates were sealed by their fathers' match.

"Steven wanted to tell a very intimate story — you know, as best you can in a movie where people are punching each other," said screenwriter Taylor.

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"Especially given modern times, it's low-hanging fruit to play into the xenophobia and hyper-nationalism,” Taylor continued. “We knew we'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we were gonna shoehorn some political commentary when, really, it's all about these characters."

"Hopefully what you see is more than just America versus Russia, but the story of fathers and sons," added Winkler. "Stories about families always resonate, in every place imaginable."

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