Who would’ve thought that a movie focused on a heavyweight boxing match between two of the most physically shredded specimens you’ll ever see on the silver screen all began over a box of donuts?
But donuts were indeed what “Creed II” star Michael B. Jordan and director were sharing when they engaged in their first conversation about how to build off of the tremendous momentum set in place by the critical and commercial success of 2016’s “Creed,” a “Rocky” reboot centered on Apollo Creed’s son Adonis that revitalized a beloved but thought to be expired movie franchise.
Director Steven Caple Jr. is a notable newcomer whose first independent feature “The Land” won the coveted “Best of Next!” award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Caple’s status as an up-and-comer is not new to the Creed franchise, since the first “Creed” was also director Ryan Coogler’s big feature, following the his acclaimed “Fruitvale Station” which won The Humanitas Prize at 2013 Sundance.
Creed’s trend of being helmed by new talent is befitting the legendary Rocky brand, which originated with the quintessential newcomer Sylvestor Stallone as a first time writer, director and film star.
About his first meeting with star Jordan, Caple Jr. recalls: “We went to get donuts, and then as soon as we finished the donut and discussed how crazy the schedule was going to be, we went and did wind sprints.”
“I knew it was going to be my last donut for a long time” Jordan adds with a laugh, as his fellow castmates joining him on the panel for the “Creed II” promotional press conference at the recent ComplexCon event in Long Beach laugh along with him. But no one is kidding.
Indeed, much like the immense discipline Adonis Creed displays as he trains for the heavyweight fight of the decade versus Russian behemoth Viktor Drago (newcomer Florian Munteanu), whose father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his iconic role from “Rocky IV”) delivered a fatal haymaker to Adonis’ father Apollo, the production the highly anticipated “Creed II” sequel required tremendous focus and effort from cast and crew alike.
When Caple Jr., for instance, was handed the reins for the next “Creed” installment, taking over for frequent Jordan collaborator Ryan Coogler (who also created the central “Creed” characters), he inherited not only the pressures of matching the smash success of Coogler’s original, but also a rather tight production; coincidentally, “Creed II’s” premiere, slated for this coming Wednesday, will mark the one year anniversary of when Caple Jr. received the call from MGM that the sequel would be his baby. And according to Caple Jr., turning the film around within such a short window was a challenge that all involved were excited to accept.
“The schedule was tight, and we knew it was going to be crazy, but there was something exciting about it,” explains Caple Jr. “We were all looking forward to the challenge. That short window of time we had just kept pushing us. We were smart about our decisions and planning, but we also weren’t afraid to fail.”
Indeed, being unafraid was crucial to Caple Jr., who, as director, was pitted with the double-edged task of giving people more of what they loved about the first one while putting his own creative imprint on the film to ensure that fans are given more than a mere exercise in repetition. It was a challenge of which Caple Jr. was acutely aware. But according to Caple Jr., knowing that he had both Jordan and “Rocky” creator Sylvester Stallone planted firmly in his corner ensured that he was never daunted.
“Following what these guys created with ‘Creed,’ I really wanted to make sure this film held up,” assesses Caple Jr. “Stepping into ‘Creed II,’ yeah, you don’t want to drop the ball, but after meeting Mike and talking to Sly, I started to feel really comfortable.They were the support system that helped me throughout the whole project. The only pressure I felt is the pressure we created for ourselves to try to do something different.”
It’s a sense of pressure that even Jordan could feel in making his return to the leading role, as he serves as the face of an operation striving to distinguish itself not only from its immediate predecessor in “Creed,” but also, on a much larger scale, from all of the prior “Rocky” installments. So how, according to Jordan, do you go about trying to be different?
“You don’t try,” quips Jordan. “You can’t try to be different. You’ve gotta just do what you do. The ‘Rocky’ franchise is just that, a franchise. We’re taking this character that we created in the first film and basically living in the same world but telling it through a different lens. The key for me is to not lean on the ‘crutch’ of ‘Rocky’ and allow Adonis to have his own world. The sense of his own tribe and his own family is something that we really wanted to build upon.”
While Jordan’s mentality in contributing to the evolution of Adonis Creed as a character may have been a case of not trying too hard, the evolution of Creed as a physical specimen required Jordan to do just the opposite: push himself to extremes like he never has before. Once again, Jordan relied on esteemed celebrity trainer Corey Calliet, who trained him for the first “Creed,” sculpted him into the hulking villain Killmonger in this year’s wildly successful Marvel film “Black Panther,” and, in an instance of art imitating life, even has a bit role in “Creed II” as one of Adonis’ cornermen.
Just as Caple Jr. continually had to meet demanding deadlines from a production standpoint, Calliet had the unique challenge of ensuring that the appearance of Jordan’s body hit specific deadlines in the script, which culminates in Jordan’s Creed challenging the 6’4” Munteanu’s Viktor Drago.
“When we saw Flo (the nickname that the cast and crew affectionately call Munteanu), “Whoa, OK, that’s where we gotta go,” recalls Calliet, himself a rags-to-riches story reminiscent of Rocky Balboa who was living out of his car in Louisiana when he first met Jordan in 2014 and convinced the burgeoning star to hire him as his trainer. “I didn’t want a ‘David vs. Goliath;’ I wanted a ‘Goliath vs. Goliath.’ You see Mike’s body progress from the beginning to the end. You see the intensity of the script unfold within his body, and we made it happen through consistency and discipline. A lot of things that we did within the movie [i.e. the training montages, a “Rocky” staple], we were doing in real life as well.”
Thanks to his intense training sessions with Calliet, Jordan has indeed accomplished the nearly impossible feat of ensuring that his Creed posing a believable threat in the boxing ring to the gargantuan Munteanu. But as you’ll see when you watch “Creed II” unfold, the matchup between Adonis Creed and Viktor Drago is far more complex than being merely a series of jabs and haymakers; it’s the next generation settling old scores put into place not by them, but by the generation before them. And it’s a powerful microcosm for how, in all aspects of life, the current generation is left to clean up the mess left behind by their predecessors, a message that certainly wasn’t lost on Munteanu.
“It’s not a problem between Adonis and Viktor; it’s Ivan and Rocky’s problem,” asserts Munteanu. “It’s a new generation, and everything my character wants is to make his father proud. I really could connect to that goal, because family is very important to me. This film is about family; I think boxing here in this movie is secondary.”
Much like when moviegoers were first introduced Munteanu’s onscreen father Lundgren in his iconic turn as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, the first thing you’re likely to notice about Munteanu is his looming physical presence. But this epic go-around of Creed vs. Drago accentuates the fact that, though Viktor is the villain in movie narrative terms, he is not the enemy. As is often the case with two adversaries, both of whom have excelled at their craft, Creed and Drago truly are two sides of the same coin.
“The two characters are not so different from each other,” explains Munteanu. “They have the same goals and are fighting for the same reasons. Family is the most important thing for both of them. My character only has his father. Adonis has no father but has Rocky in his life, and also his mother and girlfriend, and he fights for them. And I’m fighting for my father: not money or fame or world titles. And I think that that’s what kind of puts us together in some way.”
This idea is brought to life not only by Munteanu’s disarming performance, but also by a script from Juel Taylor that, mirroring Caple’s mindset in the director’s chair, isn’t afraid to take chances. Consider the film’s intriguing opening frames: we fade in on a chiseled heavyweight boxer asleep on the couch, his trainer tapping him awake in the wee hours of the morning to repeat another day of his grueling training regimen. But as we might have expected, we’re not in Philadelphia and the boxer in question isn’t Creed; we’re in the Ukraine witnessing the dawn of Viktor Drago preparing to vindicate his father.
This unexpected, and rather effective opening establishes from the get-go that, even in a genre that is now hoisted by familiar ground as far as the eye can see, Caple Jr. and Jordan et al are eager to find uncharted territory that previous “Rocky” installments haven’t yet explored. And in several instances, “Creed II” succeeds in doing so.
Yes, Caple Jr. suffers moments of weakness in the face of cliche; there’s a few too many slow motion punches in the final bout, not to mention the fact that Max Kellerman and Jim Lampley offer commentary like “this is exactly the same situation Balboa and Drago were in 30 years ago!” that lands so viciously on the nose, it feels like we ourselves just endured a Drago haymaker. But Caple Jr.’s missteps here are decidedly outweighed by his confident creative touches.
And he’s also managed to pull some great turns out of his cast. Once again, Jordan delivers an engaging, if not a tad one-note, performance as he confidently puts the proceedings on his newly sculpted shoulders, taking on a leadership with which he’s become more and more comfortable with every project that gets added to his increasingly impressive list of IMDb credits.
“One of my goals has always been to grow from project to project and grow from experience,” says Jordan. “I took on a lot ofthings that I ultimately want to become in the future–producer, creator, actor–and it’s a team effort. Everybody is vital to the outcome of the movie. If you’re not relying on or empowering the people around you, you’re doing both yourself and the project a disservice. So that kind of forced me into a leadership role that I feel very comfortable with now.”
“Creed II” also serves as yet another star turn for the endlessly charming Tessa Thompson, who, in her layered performance as Creed’s girlfriend Bianca, a talented musician with a hearing impairment, deftly tows the line between being a romantic partner who both supports and challenges Adonis. And of course, old reliable Stallone delivers an effortlessly warm performance that proves his enthusiasm for the franchise he started, even all these years later, has dwindled an ounce. “Sly is as passionate about this as if it were ‘Rocky I,’” says Caple Jr. with a smile.
But it’s not “Rocky I.” And in fact, it’s not “Creed I.” This sequel is distinctly “Creed II,” a worthy addition to the “Rocky” franchise that stands alone on its own merit. And that’s an accomplishment that Caple Jr., Jordan, Stallone et al can celebrate. Perhaps over a well-deserved donut.