Creed was that boxing ideal: a haymaker out of nowhere. Writer-director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan took a practically moribund property and made it at once old-school and modern, deftly mixing full-blown romance with punishing pugilism, nuance and social awareness to stave off any potential triteness. Creed II, with Coogler only on executive producer duties, is sadly a lesser effort, full of programmatic plotting and on-the-bloodied-nose writing, but leavened by the chemistry of its stars and its commitment to the beats of the series.
The jumping-off point for the sequel is not Rocky II but Rocky IV, aka ‘The One Where Rocky Grows A Beard, Chops Wood And Wins Over Moscow’. By 1985, Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed had been relegated to Sacrificial Sidekick Status, and it’s his death at the hands of Ivan Drago that provides the engine for the new film. Under the tutelage of Ivan (Lundgren), Viktor Drago’s (Munteanu) rise as a contender for Adonis’ (Jordan) newly won heavyweight crown throws the young fighter into turmoil, as shown by endless scenes of him debating (with Rocky, Bianca, his mother) whether he should take the fight to avenge his father. To further compound his confusion, Adonis and Bianca (Thompson) are about to become parents, and have to face the prospect that the baby might inherit deafness from Bianca. The first film leaned into its more melodramatic elements. Here director Steven Caple Jr almost feels embarrassed by them, never letting the fears of the prospective parents register.
After the first film, it feels like a regressive step.
The big problem here is the writing. There’s more speechifying this time (“Are you here to prove something to other people or prove something to yourself?” barks Rocky (Stallone) at Apollo) and the exposition — often done through through TV punditry — lacks Coogler’s economy and subtlety. While Creed made Adonis’ life in Philadelphia authentic, Creed II doesn’t bring telling specificity to Adonis’ new world as a champ: it’s just a tired litany of spacious apartments, lovemaking montages to R’n’B and interactions with the smallest entourage in boxing history. It’s also a film that wears its subtext on its stars-and-stripes robe. “It’s Shakespearean!” announces a ringside commentator, referring to the nexus of fathers, sons and tragedies in play. Creed II is Shakespearean minus the wit, profundity and emotional heft.
On the other side of the pond, Ivan and Viktor are given a thread of a through-line about trying to work their way back into the graces of the Russian boxing establishment. Although it’s nice to see Stallone and Lundgren share the same frame again, Ivan and Viktor remain ciphers. Viktor, in particular, is granted all the complexity of a Brosnan-era Bond henchman.
Still there’s pleasure to be had in spending time with these characters. Jordan and Stallone still retain their first film chemistry. Jordan and Thompson also still vibe, despite the latter being denied any inner life of her own. The film continues to find fun in all the Rocky staples. There are montages that cross-cut between Adonis and Viktor training — the former shadow boxing underwater, the latter doing impressive things with ropes — although sadly not to sub-rate synth music à la 1985. And Caple Jr mounts impressive fight sequences, using slow mo sparingly and a great use of POV shots — the light of the doctor’s torch will stay with you. And it’s a hard heart that doesn’t respond to the impossible-to-resist button pushing — that music — in the enjoyably OTT boxing finale.
But after the first film, it feels like a regressive step. First time round Coogler’s footwork was fast, his power both pinpoint-accurate and devastating. Creed II only connects occasionally.