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To paraphrase the late, great Rick James, nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Reboots and remakes from the 1980s and ’90s are everywhere, popping up on major TV networks and streaming channels with increased frequency. Pop culture icons who had their 15 minutes of fame decades ago are back for an extra five. Some of these revivals are more welcome than others. Roseanne, Fuller House, Dynasty, and Charmed are just a few that have come, gone, or are on their way. And new movie versions of The Crow, Escape From New York, and other big films from decades past are in the works. They’re even bringing Alf back.
Perhaps the most intriguing encore from the ’80s is hitting theaters on Nov. 21. That’s when Ivan Drago, the menacing Russian villain from Rocky IV, makes his return in Creed II. Dolph Lundgren, who was an unknown Swedish martial artist and actor when Sylvester Stallone chose him to play Rocky Balboa’s antagonist, will once again bring Drago to life.
A sequel to Creed, the critically acclaimed 2015 release, Creed II gives us an Ivan Drago we never could have anticipated. In Rocky IV, the Russian fighter was more machine than man, a robotic warrior trained from birth to be a symbol of Soviet domination. Drago killed Apollo Creed in the ring before Balboa exacted revenge and humiliated the Russian super-fighter in the film’s climactic bout.
Though Ivan Drago was a shallow caricature, Lundgren’s charisma and presence made the one-dimensional character come alive onscreen. With his withering glare and memorable lines, he was a mesmerizing villain who was fun to hate even if he threatened Western civilization. When Drago growled, “I must break you,” in his thick Russian accent, a million bad imitations were launched around the world. If Rocky IV were made today, Ivan Drago memes would be drowning the Web.
Creed II features a far different Drago. Not just older but fleshed out, with a rich backstory and psychological complexity. The film focuses on the clash between Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed, and Ivan’s own progeny, Viktor, played by 27-year-old newcomer Florian Munteanu. (You might remember him from last month’s cover.) While the plot is a closely held secret, expect Creed II to deliver the same tense, character-driven drama as the first Creed.
“You see a lot of vulnerability and human emotion,” Lundgren says of Ivan in Creed II. “It starts with a lot of frustration and anger for what happened 33 years ago and the life he’s lived since that went down.”
The film’s director, Steven Caple Jr., knew he was grappling with a pop culture legend and the huge expectations that come with it.
“It’s no secret that Ivan Drago is one of the most beloved villains of our lifetime,” Caple says. “The phrase I most commonly hear from fans is, ‘If he dies, he dies.’
I think fans will continue to love the Drago character for who he was in Rocky IV and will love him for the person he’s become in Creed II.”
So has Ivan Drago gone full emo? Not quite. He may be eligible for an AARP card and prefer a nap before supper, but he’s still a badass. And like all men of a certain age, he’s racked up a few regrets along the way. Creed II has the type of dramatic arc that Lundgren would like to see in more films.
“It’s a medium-budget drama, with no special effects, no superheroes, but with real human drama,” notes Lundgren. “It’s like one of those films I liked when I was younger, such as The Godfather and Scarface. They’re few and far between.”
It says a lot about Lundgren’s underrated acting chops that he was able to escape the cartoonish Drago character to build a long-term Hollywood career. Shortly after Rocky IV, Lundgren took on another iconic ’80s role as He-Man in Masters of the Universe and earned one of the leads in the blockbuster Universal Soldier. While he took some time away from Hollywood to raise his daughters in Europe, Lundgren maintained a steady work schedule over the past 30-some years, appearing mainly in action films, including the inevitable Sharknado cameo (Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, if you’re keeping track). His old pal Stallone also tapped him to join the cast of The Expendables. Lundgren again played to type.
“When I got the Expendables script, I saw a character introduced as ‘drunk Swede with a knife,’ and I knew who I was playing,” quips Lundgren.
The Lundgren resurgence gained more steam this year when he was cast as King Nereus in the new Aquaman epic. Nereus is the father of Mera (played by Amber Heard), Aquaman’s love interest. But even playing the king of the sea provided nowhere near the challenges he faced in the deep waters of Creed II.
“Emotionally, [Creed II] was much more demanding,” admits Lundgren. “The director was very good. He was really digging deep for everybody. Me, Stallone—everybody. He didn’t let anybody off the hook. You have to get to that real place—in my case, in almost every scene, because all of my stuff comes from pain and anger and hurt.”
Caple found Lundgren up to the challenge.
“It was extremely important to create a story that would allow audiences to finally understand Ivan Drago,” says the director. “Watching Dolph transform into the character we’ve all wondered about for 30 years was incredible, and the more Dolph did, the more we all learned about Ivan, especially in the context of being a father.”
Great boxing movies contain backstories of Tolstoyan depth. Lundgren accessed his own experiences, the struggles and heartaches of his life. He found familiar ground with Drago. The two have lived with each other a long time.
“You’re going to think of moments that parallel your own life if you’ve been misunderstood and brushed off as a nobody,” Lundgren says. “That is a struggle familiar to any actor, especially if you come from Europe and you’re a big guy.”
Personal moments came back to him, giving him a way into Ivan’s anguish.
“The loss of my dad—I had a really diffcult relationship with him, so I used some of that,” Lundgren says. “The whole theme of the movie is family. It’s about Drago’s family, Rocky Balboa’s family, and Adonis Creed’s family.”
Onscreen and off, Lundgren made a point to bond with his movie son. Munteanu, like Lundgren, is another European import who came from obscurity to star in a major Hollywood release. Having the veteran Swedish actor take him under his wing meant a lot to Munteanu. The two formed a bond not unlike a father-son relationship.
“Everyone said that it was unbelievable what a connection we had together,” Munteanu says. “We’re still connected. We still hang out together, still text each other. I think that this connection will stay forever.”
In Creed II, Ivan is no longer a blond Adonis but gray and drawn, with a little middle-age softness around the once-hardened edges. Part of inhabiting the older Ivan Drago was looking the part.
Weathered, beat-up. Aged. Lundgren is none of those things. At 61, he is still in excellent shape from daily martial arts workouts, his Swedish genes conferring a Viking toughness to his physique. Lundgren is committed to his training regimen, though he has suffered a few surgeries in recent years, not uncommon for men his age who have trained hard all their lives.
Trainer Chris Skogberg helped Lundgren work through his injuries as he prepared for the rigors of becoming Ivan Drago once again. Says Lundgren: “Chris is a very smart man. If you’ve had injuries, you need somebody who really knows what they’re doing as far as being able to compensate for the problems that you may have. Training demands change as you get older.” Despite its dramatic heft, Creed II has plenty of fight scenes. Caple needed Lundgren to show up in game shape to carry off the role. The director gave him rave reviews. “Everyone should strive to be in Dolph’s physical shape regardless of age,” Caple says. “His physical prowess contributed heavily to training sequences in the film between Ivan and Viktor. It really translated as a shorthand for these characters onscreen.”
For his part, Lundgren welcomed the chance to appear onscreen as a bedraggled version of Drago.
“Drago has bad teeth, pale skin, gray hair,” he says. “Some of that was my idea. I realized that it’s good for me to look like a character actor rather than an action star in the long run, because then I can do other jobs. I don’t have to be all yoked up and kicking ass.”
At this moment in his career, Lundgren is ready to be seen as a different kind of actor. He’s always been a pro’s pro in the business, but he’s looking for meatier subject matter.
“Maybe between Aquaman and Creed II, people will hire me less to kick ass and beat people up and more to tell a story. I mean, I guess I’ll still be called on to do those two first things, but as you get older, you can bring more to the table.”
And Ivan Drago? He’s due for a reassessment as well.
“There’s some redemption for him, and it comes in a very unexpected way,” reveals Lundgren. “It’s always cool when you think you’ve got somebody figured out, and you don’t.”