Ryan Coogler’s stylish and weighty 2015 film Creed told the Rocky story without being a Rocky movie. Steven Caple Jr.’s follow-up is a Rocky movie told like a Rocky movie, or to be more accurate, a Rocky sequel. Creed II is flashier, more predictable, and far less intriguing than its predecessor, which worked on all levels, both in and out of the ring. The lives of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and his mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) outside the ring are slightly less compelling this time around, especially in Balboa’s case, but are still far more interesting than any of the punches thrown inside it – a discouraging fact given who’s in the other corner.
But if Creed II is any indicator, this franchise seems destined to sprint up the same steps the Rocky franchise did for thirty years, steps where an artist’s original and perfectly-crafted intentions are steadily tossed aside in the name of fan service. As one of those faithful fans, I’m slightly bitter but entirely unapologetic.
A Creed sequel was inevitable, especially after it became a hit and saw Sylvester Stallone nominated (and stripped) of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But the 2015 film ended in such a good place – with Adonis finally accepting his heritage as Apollo Creed’s son while also creating his own legacy and finding love and bondage with Bianca and Rocky – that the incoming sequel felt like an iceberg.
In 1976, Balboa told the victorious Creed that he didn’t want a rematch, and though there’s always been a part of me that wishes he’d stuck to his word, in the end, I’m glad he didn’t. Of course, nearly all of those average-yet-enjoyable sequels were made and ready to be gobbled up by the time I was born. In that spirit, time will tell if Adonis’ story is worth the weight of the lengthy franchise it will certainly obtain.
As the film starts out, Adonis has pummeled six other fighters and is given another chance at the light heavyweight title, winning it this time. His celebration consists of a marriage proposal for Bianca which he also wins. But no sooner is the belt around his waist and the ring around her finger that he’s challenged by Russian contender Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), a locomotive of an individual, just like his father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), who, of course, killed Apollo Creed in Rocky IV and was then defeated in uber-patriotic fashion by Balboa.
The stage is set for the fight that both real and fictional audiences have been craving since the arrival of another Creed gladiator. But isn’t Viktor his own Drago, just as Adonis is his own Creed? Nope. Viktor has been rigorously brought up and trained by his father in the slums of Ukraine, where they’ve lived ever since Ivan’s exile following his defeat. Understandable. But what’s so much worse is that Adonis takes the incredible threat of Viktor Drago head on (though there are no machines telling us how many pounds of pressure his punches can produce, this is one scary dude), with hardly any fleshed out motivation.
It’s not as if Adonis was ever close to, or even knew his late father, but the way in which he approaches Drago’s challenge, as if it were his hereditary duty, is hardly believable. Not even a conversation with his mother (Phylicia Rashad), in which she reminds Adonis that he won the championship with no help from Apollo – essentially everything he learned in Creed – resuscitates his logic. And his inability to remember that fact makes him less of a romantic underdog going into this fight, and more of a cocky jerk. Surprisingly, it’s the Drago’s with the better fighting tale, though the several call backs to Drago “breaking” people gets old.
In that spirit, whereas Coogler used Rocky IV as a starting point, Creed II feeds directly from it, wiping away much, if not all of the intensity from the match, and its surrounding drama. Stallone, who wrote Rocky IV, co-wrote this screenplay with youngblood Juel Taylor and some of the lazy, “let’s-get-the-money” writing squirms in here.
It even takes the same Russia, with an outdated political stance. One of the things Stallone and Taylor do not seem to realize as they modernize the sort-of-crummy-but-still-fun 1985 film is that there’s no longer anything that prevents sports fans from rooting for the Russians. The Cold War ended, but Creed II, in the limited time it spends in Russia (the final fight takes place, once again, in a Moscow arena), acts like it didn’t.
But that’s Stallone the writer, who, other than the original Rocky, has never made too much of an impression. Stallone the actor is marvelous once again though as a father figure to Adonis. He has far less to do with the actual boxing than ever before, but his wisdom is simple and self-reflective (“a chunk of yesterday trying to be today”), and what this film perhaps does best with him and the other older characters is highlight and overlap the implications of their pasts.
Ivan Drago is still haunted by his defeat, and Rocky by the guilt of not having thrown in the towel in order to save Apollo from the Russian beast. The clashing and close proximity of these well-drawn inner horrors create a need for a rematch, and Lundgren and Stallone look in good enough shape to make it happen.
Of course, it doesn’t. Would Burgess Meredith ever square off against Tony Burton? Creed II doesn’t mess with the formula to that extent, or to any extent really. Relying off of the carried-over tales and natural likability of Jordan, Thompson, and Stallone, this sequel ranks high amongst those in the Rocky franchise, and will hopefully rank lower amongst its own inevitable sequels. Creed II goes for points, so don’t expect a knockout.
For a film whose hero’s purpose is to uppercut the expectations embroiled in his name, Creed II ironically and regrettably takes refuge in its franchise’s beaten down, yet irresistibly feel-good formula.