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.