Film Review – Creed II
What made Rocky (1976) a classic was that it was never really about the main boxing match. Rather, it was about a man trying to prove to himself that he wasn’t just another bum from the street – that his life amounted to something more, that he could push himself to the distance and not quit. When Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) fought Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), it didn’t matter whether he won or lost, but that he never gave up.
That’s why the sequels never compared to that first film, because each one became more and more about Rocky’s next obstacle. The fights became outlandish, the opponents more like cartoon characters. By the time Rocky fought Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in Rocky IV (1985), he was no longer just a kid from Philadelphia trying to do good – he now represented the heart of America in a Cold War grudge match against the Soviet Union.
Ryan Coogler’s spin off film, Creed (2015), did a successful job of bringing the series back to its personal, character-driven roots, this time focusing on the son of Apollo, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). This new sequel, Creed II (2018), mostly maintains that focus, but now we’re starting to see some familiar developments that the Rocky series took. This is a bigger and grander story than the previous entry, and because of that it loses a bit of the nuance and texture that made Coogler’s film a breath of fresh air. But it still has the high-spirited entertainment that has always played well in the series. It’s a testament to the narrative structure Stallone helped cement decades ago that this new film somehow still delivers despite its predictability.
Steven Caple Jr. takes over directing duties with Stallone and Juel Taylor responsible for the screenplay. This time, we find Adonis ascending to the top the boxing ranks, becoming a world title contender with Rocky alongside as his coach and trainer. Oddly enough, Rocky’s health issues – which played a prominent role previously – are barely mentioned this time around (it would seem Stallone wants to stick around a little longer even though his character’s name is no longer in the title). Things take a turn when Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) son of Ivan, comes out of nowhere to challenge Adonis. Knowing full well the baggage that comes with the name “Drago” (if you haven’t seen Rocky IV, I would suggest seeing that before this), Adonis decides to take the fight even though it could lead to him falling to the same fate his father did.
Creed II works best as a story about fathers and sons, and the legacies we are either blessed or cursed with at birth. Each of the main characters have to deal with their role within their respective families. Adonis must find a way to settle his personal demons as the son of a renowned champion, all while managing to be a father himself with his girlfriend/fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Rocky is very much a surrogate father to Adonis, and the way he gives advice to the young man works as though he is trying to make up for the missed opportunities with his own son. Both Jordan and Stallone step back into their characters with relative ease, and while the emotional stakes are not as high as they were before, both perform with commitment and focus.
But the real surprise is Dolph Lundgren, who gives a very convincing performance reprising his role as the stone-faced, Russian machine. The last time we saw Drago, he was meant to be nothing more than a squared-jawed symbol of power, backed by a government whose only interest was in victory. That kind of expectation – and disappointment in having lost to Rocky – has weighed on Ivan in the decades since. As his son Viktor gains notoriety the closer they get to the fight, Ivan places that very same kind of pressure upon him. When your entire life has revolved around being successful, transferring that weight to a younger generation is both easy and dangerous. Lundgren is not given much in terms of dialogue (he speaks short sentences, mostly in Russian) but that actually adds to his effectiveness. His steely eyes and impenetrable demeanor hides a vulnerability that is most believable in bits and pieces, anything more might risk going too far.
I haven’t talked much about the boxing scenes because it’s basically what you’ve seen before. Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography does an admirable job of capturing the fight scenes in middle to wide angle shots, allowing us to see the dramatic size difference between Jordan and Munteanu in the ring. The editing (Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, Paul Harb) jumps between extended shots of characters punching back and forth in real time, and with extreme slow-motion moments of punches connecting through the fighter’s faces. The training montage has the usual inspired feel to them – this time with Adonis working out in the middle of the desert – but it never quite hits the emotional high of seeing Rocky running up the stairs and waving his fists in the air. In fact, that might be the missing ingredient of the Creed series: we have yet to see the iconic image that would define Adonis’ character.
Creed II is a perfectly acceptable sports film. It maintains the emphasis on character but suffers from following too closely to the blueprint. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. It was fine.