CREED II

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Michael B. Jor­dan is back for an­other round…

Aquick heads up, Sylvester Stal­lone will not fea­ture in this ar­ti­cle. Though this iconic fran­chise is still very much his baby and he’s co-star­ring in its lat­est it­er­a­tion (“He’s still alive!’ chuck­les di­rec­tor Steven Caple Jr. of Mr. Bal­boa), Sly isn’t do­ing press on Creed II – his eighth in­stal­ment in the Rocky uni­verse – in or­der to re­frame this pic­ture as ‘Michael B. Jor­dan’s film’. And that is kind of a big deal.

Like his un­der­dog pro­tag­o­nist, Stal­lone built the Rocky se­ries from the ground up, writ­ing a pugilist ve­hi­cle for him­self in 1975, get­ting it made for (rel­a­tive) peanuts and see­ing it be­come 1976’s big­gest cash cow with Academy awards to boot (Best Pic, Di­rec­tor and Edit­ing, thank you very much). Forg­ing his own agency, Stal­lone made him­self a huge star and his prop­erty a multi-film, multi-mil­lion-dol­lar fran­chise, rein­vent­ing it for a new mil­len­nia with 2006’s Rocky Bal­boa and again with 2015’s Creed. And now it seems he’s pass­ing the prize­fighter belt onto

Creed’s re­turn­ing star, Michael B. Jor­dan. Anoint­ing him, if you will, as heir ap­par­ent to the Rocky es­tate. “For sure. I would def­i­nitely agree with that,” drawls Jor­dan when we catch up with him zip­ping be­tween other jobs in Ge­or­gia. “That’s def­i­nitely what hap­pened.”

Stal­lone has shown his faith in Jor­dan to carry a project be­fore. When writer/di­rec­tor Ryan Coogler pitched him the idea of Creed, Jor­dan was al­ready in mind for the role of Ado­nis, box­ing son of boxer dad Apollo Creed (Rocky’s op­po­nent in the first and sec­ond films, trainer in Rocky III and – spoiler alert – killed in the ring by Dolph Lund­gren’s Soviet fighter in Rocky IV). Jor­dan had shown star qual­ity in Coogler’s Fruit­vale Sta­tion, TV show Fri­day Night Lights and Josh Trank’s Chron­i­cle, but Creed was still some­thing of a gam­ble. Tak­ing Stal­lone’s care­fully cu­rated

se­ries and re­boot­ing it with a black pro­tag­o­nist and a rookie lead­ing man was evo­lu­tion­ary. But Creed ex­celled at the box of­fice and among crit­ics, go­ing on to con­trib­ute to a rev­o­lu­tion­ary wave of cinematic rep­re­sen­ta­tion when Coogler’s next project Black Pan­ther came out. That Jor­dan also played a key role in that movie (as com­plex bad­die Kill­mon­ger) only helped his grow­ing brand, clout and am­bi­tion, po­si­tion­ing him – along with the luxe en­dorse­ment deals, 7.6m In­sta fol­low­ers and his so­cially re­spon­si­ble pro­duc­tion com­pany (in­clu­sion rid­ers on all sets) – as the pro­ducer god­fa­ther of a sec­ond bout.

“[A se­quel] was some­thing that I al­ways thought about,” says Jor­dan. “Just in my head, like: ‘OK, we’ll do a se­quel if it’s a suc­cess.’ As far as the specifics of where it might go, and what would hap­pen? We weren’t re­ally sure, and I don’t think we re­ally found that out un­til we started to re­ally dive into what the sec­ond movie was go­ing to be. We wanted to or­gan­i­cally fig­ure out what the stakes would be. How do we evolve? How do we stay true to the char­ac­ters and these re­la­tion­ships that we’re in­vested in, that the au­di­ence is in­vested in? And how do we take that to the next level? How do we be­come big­ger, and yet stay true to the heart and the world that we cre­ated?”

With Coogler too busy com­plet­ing Black Pan­ther at the time a se­quel started be­ing dis­cussed, Stal­lone ini­tially planned to di­rect (he helmed Rocky II, III, IV and Rocky Bal­boa), but Coogler sug­gested a friend of his from his days study­ing film at USC, Steven Caple Jr., who he and Jor­dan felt could con­tinue the work they had started with the first film. “He’s very tal­ented. He’s around my age. He speaks my lan­guage. He speaks Ado­nis’ lan­guage. He’s a mil­len­nial,” Jor­dan, 31, en­thuses. “I feel like in or­der to take this story for­ward through the eyes of Ado­nis, we need some­body that can re­late to Ado­nis some­what, and Steven was def­i­nitely that.”

Though he was pleas­antly sur­prised to be ap­proached (“I was lit­er­ally on set, di­rect­ing GrownIsh when I got the call. I was like, ‘Who? Me?’”), Caple Jr. un­der­stands his com­mod­ity. “Me, Mike and

Ryan Coogler, we all kind of grew up in a sim­i­lar way. We’re kids from an ur­ban neigh­bour­hood, but we all grew up ed­u­cated. We all had fam­ily around us. We went to col­lege. We all can re­late to Ado­nis Creed, and they wanted to find some­one who could bring that voice out.”

Hearts On Fire

With Coogler exec-pro­duc­ing along­side Jor­dan and Sly, Creed II’s ‘voice’ be­came about fam­ily – the build­ing of it, the van­quish­ing of its demons. Though not with­out a hefty dol­lop of crowd­pleas­ing nos­tal­gia. Hav­ing fought a good fight and re­ceiv­ing some val­i­da­tion in Creed, Ado­nis now finds him­self up against a phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing op­po­nent in the shape of Vik­tor Drago, the son of the man moun­tain that beat his fa­ther to death. And Vik­tor’s trained by his pa Ivan (Rocky IV’s Lund­gren re­turn­ing, pos­si­bly along­side his on-screen wife, Brigitte Nielsen), which prom­ises some se­ri­ous head­fuck­ery. And vis­ceral spar­ring.

Like in Creed, Stal­lone wanted to find a real ath­lete to dance with Jor­dan. He sent spot­ters out to comb the gyms of Eu­rope look­ing for tal­ent, and landed on 28-year-old Ro­ma­nian boxer Flo­rian Mun­teanu, aka ‘Big Nasty’. With a slew of in­sane shred­ding work­out vids on YouTube, un­real abs [se­ri­ously, look them up], a fight­ing weight of 245lb and that Drago height of 6ft 4in, Caple Jr. was im­pressed (“Who is this mon­ster, man?!”) and screen-tested him be­fore bring­ing him in for a chem­istry read with Jor­dan. Untested as an ac­tor but the son of a boxer him­self, Mun­teanu felt con­fi­dent he could go toe-to-toe with Jor­dan. “My first feel­ing was, ‘You don’t have to play this role – this role is you,’” he re­calls when we catch him in NY. “So I was pretty sure I was go­ing to get it once I started to au­di­tion for it. But the role that I’m play­ing is pretty dark and pretty deep. There are a lot of emo­tions. That’s pretty tough for your men­tal­ity. To­gether with the phys­i­cal as­pect, I think it was the hard­est time of my life so far.”

For Jor­dan, the phys­i­cal chal­lenge was upped from his first film, which saw him work out six days a week to get into mid­dleweight shape. Caple Jr. re­calls won­der­ing if he could do it on first meet­ing. “When I first met Mike he wasn’t in shape for the char­ac­ter, he was eat­ing doughnuts. I was like, ‘I’m a lit­tle wor­ried, man.’ But he’s a beast. He was work­ing out two times a day, over the week­end; work­ing out be­fore the set; and on top of that, work­ing on the script… he did so much at once, car­ry­ing this film and be­ing the lead. But he gives you ev­ery­thing. He took Creed to an­other level in this film.”

Mun­teanu was also im­pressed, and ad­mit­ted some of his punches un­in­ten­tion­ally con­nected with the star. “He’s a guy who’s not a boxer and he weighs 40lb less than me. But he took my shots pretty well. He’s def­i­nitely on top of his game. Ev­ery­thing he does [in train­ing], he does like a pro­fes­sional. And you know the way he moves in the ring? He moves like a true ath­lete. I think he def­i­nitely has all the abil­i­ties to step up into the ring.”

For added grit, pro­duc­tion filmed dur­ing the Joshua v Parker bout in Cardiff for re­al­is­tic crowd re­ac­tions and an au­then­tic arena feel, though Jor­dan laments he wasn’t there per­son­ally for it. “But I have been to Wales be­fore [for Bear Grylls’ Run­ning Wild]. There’s a lot of sheep and there’s a lot of grass,” he laughs.

But let’s also not for­get that Rocky IV, with its much-aped train­ing mon­tages (sleigh-pulling, snow-run­ning, cart-lift­ing, wood-chop­ping!) and un­apolo­getic jin­go­ism was one of the most camp and flam­boy­ant of the se­ries. Will there be a know­ing nod to that? “Ob­vi­ously we’ll go there dur­ing the fights and mon­tages,” Caple Jr. nods. “But dur­ing the sto­ry­line it­self, we played it grounded the en­tire way through.”

One of the most ground­ing themes of Creed and the rest of the Rocky oc­ta­l­ogy is the cel­e­bra­tion of the fam­i­lies we cre­ate. As Tessa Thomp­son says (in Lon­don, be­tween film­ing Men In Black and do­ing voice­work for Lady And The Tramp), “For me, as much as Rocky’s a movie about box­ing, it’s re­ally a movie about love. It’s about that dis­cov­ery, and those are the films that are most com­pelling out of the fran­chise.” Thomp­son, as Ado­nis’ girl­friend, Bianca, was key to that as­pect in Creed both in front of and be­hind the cam­era. In­te­gral in the cre­ation of her char­ac­ter to en­sure she was a well-rounded, in­trigu­ing woman with agency (Thomp­son made Bianca a mu­si­cian with hear­ing loss, fight­ing for her own ca­reer along­side Creed), the fire­brand ac­tress was de­ter­mined to en­sure au­di­ences con­tin­ued to get a

‘WHEN I FIRST MET MIKE HE WASN’T IN SHAPE FOR THE CHAR­AC­TER, HE WAS EAT­ING DOUGHNUTS. I WAS LIKE, “I’M WOR­RIED, MAN.” BUT HE’S A BEAST’ STEVEN CAPLE JR.

char­ac­ter they could recog­nise and cham­pion. “The truth is, it wasn’t a hard fight to win, be­cause they were anx­ious to have my point of view, and Michael was a pro­ducer on this one – he was wildly sup­port­ive. Ul­ti­mately, Mike and I felt a lot of healthy, ex­cited anx­i­ety about go­ing into the sec­ond one, and hon­our­ing these char­ac­ters, and also find­ing new ground. But I think the thing that’s re­ally ex­cit­ing about Bianca and Don­nie as a cou­ple on screen is that they chal­lenge each other. They keep each other hon­est, they make each other bet­ter. That’s some­thing that we found ex­cit­ing on the first one, and I think it’s some­thing that is a cor­ner­stone of the sec­ond film.”

“Fam­ily is some­thing that is very im­por­tant to Ado­nis,” Jor­dan agrees, point­ing out that in this film a third­gen­er­a­tion Creed ap­pears. “It’s some­thing that he’s never re­ally had, or felt like he had. So to start his own fam­ily on his own is some­thing that he’s al­ways re­ally dreamed about. But we’re also giv­ing him a sense of why he fights: still be­ing some­what in the shadow of his fa­ther; still fig­ur­ing out what his legacy is, what it means to be Ado­nis Creed.”

Legacy is also key to Creed II in terms of cinematic his­tory. Caple Jr., Jor­dan and Thomp­son want to cap­i­talise on the in­clu­siv­ity that the first film demon­strated and to build on the wins of Black Pan­ther and Crazy Rich Asians to con­tinue to pro­vide sto­ries that re­flect au­di­ences back at them.

“One thou­sand per cent,” Jor­dan says when we dis­cuss the im­por­tance and re­spon­si­bil­ity of show­ing di­ver­sity on screen, “I feel like Creed is def­i­nitely that rep­re­sen­ta­tion that a lot of black com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple of colour’s com­mu­ni­ties have been look­ing for. Tak­ing a char­ac­ter that stems from the world of the Rocky fran­chise that’s been so pop­u­lar around the world, and be­ing able to tell that story through this African-Amer­i­can char­ac­ter, I think is very pow­er­ful. But it’s also bust­ing down that stereo­type that this type of story, this type of char­ac­ter, doesn’t travel in­ter­na­tion­ally. It’s gen­er­a­tionally what’s sup­posed to hap­pen. We are evolv­ing and tak­ing things to the next level.” Thomp­son agrees (“The hat-trick of the first Creed was that it was tak­ing a uni­verse that au­di­ences know, un­der­stand and love, but re­ally chal­leng­ing it, set­ting in this whole new de­mo­graphic, in­side a world that is very dif­fer­ent from the orig­i­nal fran­chise, and it’s heart­en­ing to see that au­di­ences have re­sponded”), but points out that view­ers of all eth­nic­i­ties, gen­ders and, ahem, creeds can be en­riched from wider on-screen rep­re­sen­ta­tion. “We have this idea that au­di­ences want to see only peo­ple like them­selves on screen. The truth is, the magic is that you can fol­low a pro­tag­o­nist who looks noth­ing like you and live in their shoes. I think that gets us closer as peo­ple. So this idea that brown and black faces don’t sell over­seas is lu­di­crous. It’s great to see films like Black Pan­ther smash those ideas. It re­ally is deeply sig­nif­i­cant that these films do well, and we prove that they have a mar­ket. I hope that Creed con­tin­ues to do that.”

Stal­lone will be hop­ing his pro­tégé can de­velop his hard-won fran­chise fur­ther, but Jor­dan is in no doubt who the champ is de­spite his move from star to fig­ure­head. “Our re­la­tion­ship has def­i­nitely evolved,” he says of Stal­lone. “But I’m def­i­nitely still the new­bie. He has decades of ex­pe­ri­ence over me. There’s al­ways some­thing for me to learn from him. He has so many sto­ries and lit­tle gems of wis­dom to give me, per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally. I’m al­ways lis­ten­ing. So tak­ing this po­si­tion as a pro­ducer and star­ring in this movie, it’s a step up, but I still play the role of a stu­dent when it comes to Sly.” He may not be do­ing in­ter­views, it may be his last star­ring role in the fran­chise, and he may be hand­ing over the reins to Jor­dan, but Stal­lone’s im­print is writ large in this evolv­ing fran­chise. He knows bet­ter than any­one that it’s all about mov­ing for­ward. Be­cause, as Rocky him­self put it, that’s how the win­ning is done.

Creed II opens 30 novem­ber.

‘IT’S VERY POW­ER­FUL. IT’S ALSO BUST­ING DOWN THAT STEREO­TYPE THAT THIS TYPE OF STORY, THIS TYPE OF CHAR­AC­TER, DOESN’T TRAVEL’ MICHAEL B. JOR­DAN

“Not the face, son.” Sly Stal­lone re­turns as Rocky to train Michael B. Jor­dan’s Ado­nis for his his­toric grudge match.

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