Creed II loses some of the soul of its predecessor, but proves that film's foundation was too solid to collapse
One of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of the fast few years was Creed, yet another Rocky sequel that freshened up what was at the time probably the most tired franchise in the movie business. Through the collaboration of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther), both in the midst of a rise to the top of the industry, gave the boxing saga a inspired, grounded perspective, reinvigorating Sylvester Stallone’s signature character with a supporting, mentor role while giving us a new empathetic protagonist to root for in Jordan’s Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s friend and former rival Apollo Creed. It was the first time in decades that the franchise felt smart, acknowledging the struggle and inner turmoil in both the determined, tortured Creed and the lonely, regretful Rocky. Coogler used the series’s history to forge a new path, one that saw a fighter indicative of the modern age and every bit as heroic as Stallone’s Italian Stallion.
The sequel to that successful effort, Steven Caple Jr.’s Creed II, serves less as remarkable piece of filmmaking and more as a reminder of how unexpectedly entertaining its predecessor was. That’s not to say it’s a bad film in any sense of the word, but it’s hard to deny the fact that if it weren’t for the solid foundation laid out by Coogler (handing over this film Caple Jr. in the light or preparations for Black Panther 2) and company that this film would feel like another listless, limp Rocky sequel. The plot does indeed sound like a more or less predictable next step for the series, seeing Creed squaring off with the terrifying son (Florian Munteanu) of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his role from Rocky IV), the man who killed his father in the ring only to be defeated by Rocky in a similar bout of vengeance. It plays out exactly how’d you expect, with bloody losses, family drama, training montages, and comebacks both in the ring and at home moving the plot along at a breakneck pace. Stallone, now again charge in screenwriting duties in light of Coogler’s absence, almost lets his hubris get the better of him by regressing the franchise back to the structure of one of its worst entries and taking the gritty heart out of Creed in favor of a more conventional approach.
As lesser as Stallone’s crack at this rebooted universe may be, there’s still some life bubbling under its trope-ridden surface. Jordan is still the perfect choice to lead this franchise, further deepening the appeal of the titular Creed with a performance that has a darker, more visceral edge than before. This Creed is still the pained, desperate-to-prove-himself boxer we met in Coogler’s entry, but here’s he truly crackling under the pressure of expectation, lashing out in anger and arrogance when he’s not privately crumbling into despair. His only light is Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Annihilation), his musician lover from the first film who is now his fiancé, who is brought to life with so much honesty and empathy from Thompson that she continues to outshine original series romantic interest Adrian at every turn. By further delving into the pair’s relationship, highlighting both their intense love for another as well as their issues, from Creed’s self-destructive nature to Bianca’s rapidly worsening hearing, the film gives much-needed emotional resonance to the sometimes empty grandstanding of its main narrative. The stakes of Creed’s fighting still feel dire because both he and Thompson make their characters so achingly human. After all these years, Stallone still can’t resist giving himself dopey platitudes to mumble through on screen, but when he really connects with the more tender aspects of the character that Coogler fleshed out, he again captures the magic of his career-defining performance and continues to serve as the moral backbone of this reboot.
While the returning cast is predictably solid, it’s surprising that they are sometimes bested by the combination of Lundgren and Munteanu, who play off each other’s intensity to deliver a complex, even moving exploration of a twisted father-son relationship. Lundgren’s Drago, disgraced and abandoned by both his country and his wife after his loss to Rocky, has raised his son Viktor like a monster, forming him into a hulking Terminator whose desire to win is born out of hatred for his absentee mother and the country his father left behind. Drago is still a preposterous Russian stereotype, but Lundgren gets the opportunity to peel back the machismo a bit here and portray Drago less as a mindless killing machine and more as betrayed soldier looking to reclaim status not only for himself but for his son. Munteanu is less interesting, leaving Creed yet again with a pretty unmemorable opponent performance-wise, but his raw physically does admittedly heighten the anxiety in watching each of his blows connect with our hero. Together they form a formidable duo whose desperation is every bit as terrifying as their strength and ability.
As for boxing, the film is sorely lacking the brilliant long-takes and high-speed photography of Coogler and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti, but Caple Jr. and Kramer Morgenthau (The Darkest Minds) still provide some thrilling moments of sports action. The training and fighting sequences, while unoriginal, are still entertaining because of the smart choices behind the camera from the pair. One notable takeaway from this film’s portrayal of the sport is how it convincingly illustrates boxing’s impact on the body, throwing Jordan through the ringer to show depths of the sport’s violence and how difficult is to recover from particularity gruesome beatings. We’ve seen the franchise do this before, but Caple Jr. frames in it in such a way that we feel every punch and cracked bone like we’re in the ring ourselves.
Creed II is exactly what you’d expect, and that’s both its biggest strength and its kryptonite. It continues to make the case for continuing Creed’s saga, letting Jordan, Thompson, and Stallone dig deeper into their fascinating characters. But it’s also an entry that’s already showing signs of franchise fatigue, relying on the tropes and plot beats that its predecessor largely abandoned to provide an entertaining but less intelligent sports drama that doesn’t quite feel deserving of the talent involved. With the franchise back in Stallone’s control and Coogler’s masterful talent already moving on to other properties, there’s an air of quiet death in this newly re-modeled house, and only time will time if tell if it will have the resolve to stay standing.