Ryan Coogler’s Creed opened in a youth detention center. Young Adonis Creed, pulsing with rage, gets in a fight with another boy for seemingly no reason at all. We didn’t just meet a new character in the Rocky franchise, we met a human being who’s moving story was enriched by the legacy of its predecessors, without being reliant on it. Creed II, helmed by relative newcomer Steven Caple Jr., has a much different and very telling intro, starting with Russian monolith Viktor Drago training with his father Ivan.The impact of seeing these characters relies entirely on one’s knowledge of Rocky 4, and sets the tone for a film much more reliant on the lore that Sylvester Stallone has built over the course of this forty year saga. Ironic, since much of Adonis’ arc this time around orbits around building his own legacy.
Caple’s film acts as a medley between the stripped down, realistic tone of the original Creed and the more outlandish opponents of the Rocky sequels, creating a compelling central story. Adonis must defeat the son of the man who killed his father, a goal made all the more imposing by the arrival of his newborn child. It’s large in scale but personal in nature.
Michael B. Jordan once again brings an endearing intensity to Adonis. We stand behind his drive to achieve this personal victory, but root for him to pull his head out of his ass and not get himself killed. His relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is given much more dimension this time around, with Thompson effectively capturing the turmoil of being in love with somebody who lives such a dangerous life. However, her entire being isn’t centered around him, and we get to see a great deal more of her not only thriving in her music career, but dealing with her steadily deteriorating hearing. It’s a relationship that’s every bit as winning as the one between Rocky and Adrian in the original films.
Many of the film’s shortcomings ultimately fall in one way or another on Stallone. Seemingly empowered by the rapturous response to his transcendent work in the previous film, he has decided to not only keep Rocky alive but to hold Donnie’s story within the limits of what has already been created. While his performance certainly isn’t bad, it’s clear that the Rocky character doesn’t have a lot of gas in the tank. Stallone brings us through the same heartstring tugging motions he did before, visiting Adrian’s grave, working alone in his restaurant, and pining for the love of his estranged son, but they feel played out. After a while, all of his scenes boil down to him giving Adonis inspirational speeches, and at this point, Rocky’s starting to repeat himself.
The reintroduction of the Drago family also yields mixed results. Stallone’s screenplay attempts to delve into the relationship of this humiliated father and his workhorse son but really only finds their humanity on a surface level. We can only feel so bad for Ivan’s “I lost and now my wife and country hate me” routine when we remember that he very intentionally killed Adonis’ father. Dolph Lundgren and Florian Munteanu do what they can, but they never really move beyond being props stored inside emotional baggage.
On its own terms, Caple’s direction is solid. He maintains Coogler’s more stripped back aesthetic that gives the Rocky formula a more realistic feel. Adonis isn’t running on mountaintops, he’s slinging a sledgehammer in a vast desert. While his boxing sequences don’t have the ingenious visual ingenuity of Coogler’s, he captures the action well and makes each of the bone crushing haymakers count. They play more like games of Punch Out than actual boxing matches, but for what we’re going for, it works.
Creed II is not nearly as rousing, heartbreaking, and life affirming as the original. However, on it’s own terms, it’s an enjoyable sequel that nimbly brings Adonis into the fold of the original films. It works this time, but hopefully, if Jordan wants to get back into the ring again, it’ll be without Stallone and with something that pushes the series forward instead of holding it back.