Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Sylvester Stallone, Florian Munteanu, Dolph Lungdren, Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby, Wood Harris
Amongst a sea of reboots and revivals, 2015’s Creed set the high water mark, pleasantly surprising audiences and critics alike by bringing a new relevance to a beloved but diminished franchise. Ryan Coogler’s film effectively functioned as both sequel and remake, continuing the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) into his older years, while also presenting a new hero for a new generation in Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). With Creed II, Steven Caple Jr, who has taken the reins from Coogler, is attempting a similar balancing of the old and the new, crafting a film that serves simultaneously as a sequel to Creed and to Rocky IV.
After starting out his career as a curiosity, as Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis Creed has earned legitimacy and claimed the world heavyweight crown. He is engaged to Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose music career is going strong, and they have a child on the way. In short, life is pretty good for Donnie. But again, the shadow of his father proves inescapable. Fight promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) comes to him with a proposition: a title fight against Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), whose father Ivan (Dolph Lungdren) killed Donnie’s father in the ring. Marcelle is preaching legacy. There have been dozens of heavyweight champions but people only remember the handful of them who have a story attached. But how can Donnie prepare properly for a fight which carries such emotional baggage? Rocky has his own baggage with this fight, so if Adonis is determined to take it, he may have to take it alone.
Rocky IV, whilst one of the most loved instalments in the franchise, also represented the Rocky series at its most cartoonish. Creed II takes up narrative threads from that film, but incorporates them into the more grounded tone and aesthetic established in Creed. Where Rocky IV, coming in the midst of the Cold War, chose to present the contest between Rocky and Drago in geopolitical terms – East against West, the USA against the Soviet Union – Creed II ignores the geopolitical in favour of a much more personal story. Returning to the key theme of the last film, we have a tale about sons and fathers. Donnie and the spectre of Apollo. Donnie and his surrogate father Rocky. There is also a thinly sketched subplot concerning Rocky’s separation from his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia). The most interesting of these son-father relationships, however, belongs to Viktor and Ivan Drago.
The most striking element of Creed II is that a real effort is made to humanise the central antagonist. Where the Ivan Drago of Rocky IV was a superhuman machine who hardly spoke a line of dialogue, here Viktor and Ivan both have a story and a clear set of motivations. After Drago lost that fight to Rocky, he lost everything – his honour, his country, his wife. Ivan sees Viktor as his ticket to redemption, but in doing so, he projects his shame onto his son. The result is that our antagonist Viktor wears the burden of his father’s past just as heavily as Donnie does.
But this is Michael B. Jordan’s film. Creed II sees the responsibility of carrying the franchise handed to Adonis from Rocky, who while a supporting character in Creed still provided much of the film’s emotional heft (as was recognised with Stallone’s Oscar nomination). Jordan manages to project an emotional vulnerability despite Donnie’s strong physical appearance. There is an anxiety to this character who, despite having made it to the top, still feels compelled to prove himself. This character who despite being surrounded by people who have got his back, continues to try and walk alone. It is, however, somewhat frustrating to see this character once again so consumed by the weight of his famous father, having taken such strides in the first film in establishing his own path.
Rocky sequels have obviously adhered to a relatively strict formula – a loss, a lesson, a great challenge – and Creed II holds tight to that. However, screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker, Sascha Penn, Juel Taylor and Stallone do find subtle ways of tweaking that formula to provide new angles for returning fans. Impressively, both of the movie’s main bouts end in results that we have not seen before in the series, no mean feat given this is the eighth film. The climactic fight, in particular, delivers a particularly emotional resolution which you don’t see coming.
While a solid addition to the franchise with plenty to offer fans, this sequel does not reach the lofty heights of Creed. It misses Coogler’s focused direction and vision. While the central drama is strong, supporting characters are underserved – Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, in particular, is largely reduced to supportive wife having been such a great addition to the first film. Ultimately, though, what the film lacks is that big dollop of heart that has always powered the best Rocky films. Jordan is crafting an interesting character in Adonis, but has not yet built up the level of affection audiences feel for Rocky after four decades. If Creed III indeed does happen without Stallone, who has said this is the last time he will play the role, that will be Adonis’ greatest challenge yet.
Review by Duncan McLean
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