Creed II (Steven Caple Jr., 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.
I am no connoisseur of boxing films (nor of the sport), and have only ever seen the first Rocky movie (though I own the full 6-disc set of that entire series, which means I have no excuse not to have watched them), so take that for what it’s worth when reading this, my review of Creed II, the sequel to the 2015 Creed. The earlier film breathed energetic new life into what had become (to an outside observer) a tired genre and franchise, following the son of Rocky Balboa’s erstwhile rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed as he tried his own powerful hands at the family profession. Directed by Ryan Coogler, who has since gone on to the big time with Black Panther, Creed closely followed the formula of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, and even wrote the original character into the script, casting Sly as a mentor to star Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed. It worked, even if it didn’t feel all that original, and thus was a new series born.
Now here we are, three years later, and though Coogler may have moved on, Jordan and Stallone are back, this time directed by Steven Caple Jr. (The Land) . If you recall, young Creed – just as did Rocky in Rocky – lost his final match to the then-champ, but earned everyone’s respect, even his opponent’s, by going the distance. As Creed II begins, he has long ago left that honorable defeat behind and racked up a number of significant wins, including the one we see at the start, which makes him the world heavyweight boxing champion. Nothing like being on top to set you up for a fall.
Sure enough, waiting in the wings is one Viktor Drago, son of Ivan, whom even I remember, sight unseen, as the bad guy from Rocky IV (the images and story of which were a ubiquitous presence in my childhood, so who needed to watch the actual film?). It was Ivan – played once more by Dolph Lundgren, older but still mean – who killed Apollo. A savvy promoter named Buddy Marcelle (the excellent Russell Hornsby, most recently from The Hate U Give) has the bright idea that what the world needs is to see the son of the man who killed a great boxer face off against the son of the man his father killed. Let’s get ready to rumble!
Played by a hulking giant named Florian Munteanu (known through his real-life social media accounts as “Big Nasty“), Viktor Drago towers over Creed in much the same Ivan loomed over Rocky. As Creed struggles with mounting insecurities, his wife’s pregnancy and what a child will mean to his status as champion, Drago trains. And trains. When they meet, it doesn’t go well, for Creed, anyway. For the rest of the film, we watch as Rocky and Creed plan for a rematch, where all wrongs can be righted. It’s OK if you haven’t seen Rocky IV (remember, I haven’t), but we all know how this will end. Still, the filmmakers throw in some good fight choreography and pleasant minor plot twists here and there to keep us in occasional suspense. The finale is enjoyably cathartic, if not surprising. Perhaps by Creed III the franchise can stop poaching on the earlier series, however, and develop some brand-new ideas. With Stallone, himself, as one of the screenwriters, that might be hard, given his own investment in the legacy of the Rocky series.
I also wish that more could be done with the great Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) than to just make her supportive of her man. Both she and Phylicia Rashad, who returns as Creed’s mother, liven up every scene they’re in, but are not given much to do beyond that, though Thompson’s Bianca does get to sing a few times. Brigitte Nielsen makes an appearance, as well, reprising her Rocky IV role as Ivan Drago’s now ex-wife. She struts and glowers, though, and that’s about it. I guess one shouldn’t expect all that much for women to do in a film about men bashing their brains in. Indeed, that’s the key: keep one’s expectations low. If you can do that, then Creed II delivers well beyond them.