From its opening sequence, which finds Drago training with Viktor in a desolate section of Kiev, Ukraine, Creed II strikes a more serious, somber tone than Rocky IV. The version of Drago presented here, still in shape but weathered by age, is not driven by nationalistic pride and geo-political chest-pumping. (No, there aren't any references to election meddling or troll farms.) Divorced from his wife and bitter about his athletic legacy, Drago is an outcast in Russia. He clearly sees the boxing career of his son as a way to regain a sense of dignity and self-respect. As the saying often goes in sequels, this time it's personal.
Lundgren plays this all with a light touch. In his one big confrontation with Stallone, which plays out in Rocky's restaurant in front of framed photos of Apollo, he toys with the sense of history between the two characters. In a profile in New York Magazine, Lundgren tells the writer how he "had to confront" Stallone over the writing of that specific scene; Lundgren thought that the lines were "going back to Rocky IV vibes." Whatever the two actors settled on, it works, creating a moment of genuine tension in a movie that occasionally falls back on soap opera twists and sportscaster voiceover to conjure emotions.
As poignant and loaded as that restaurant scene between Rocky and Drago is, I found the last moment for Drago in the movie to be even more moving. As the final fight draws to a close, Donnie finally gets the upper hand on Viktor, channeling the "Eye of the Tiger" after taking the advice of his trainer Rocky. You've seen it before. Part of the larger challenge of any Rocky sequel is that the movie needs to work extra hard to make the main character an underdog again, creating a sense of inevitability to the final confrontation. They're playing the hits here.
The more interesting drama is playing out in the other corner, making you wish the movie had spent more time with the Dragos than it does. When Viktor gets taken down with a series of punches and looks like he's down for the count, possibly on the brink of death, his domineering but ultimately loving father Ivan throws in the towel, calling back to the scene in Rocky IV when Rocky fails to save his friend Apollo. There's a modicum of macho poetry here: The father saves his son. In Rocky IV, the Drago name was defined by the endlessly quotable line, "If he dies, he dies." In Creed II, the character is redeemed through an act of compassion and mercy that renders him less bloodthirsty, violent, and cruel. Freed from the cryogenic confines of '80s propaganda, Drago is human after all.