Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Steven Caple jr
Stars: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Brigette Nielsen, Phylicia Rashid, Milo Ventigmilia, Russell Hornsby, Wood Harris, Patrice Harris.
In 2015 director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Black Panther, etc) reinvigorated the Rocky franchise which had grown tired and stale and gave it a necessary injection of youthful energy. The last couple of Rocky films had been little more than vanity projects for its writer/director and star Sylvester Stallone. With Creed Coogler took the franchise in a fresh new direction by focusing on Adonis Creed (played by his regular collaborator Michael B Jordan), the son of Carl Weathers’ character Apollo Creed, Rocky’s friend and fellow boxing champion who was killed in the ring by fearsome Russian boxer Ivan Drago. Creed was that rare example of a reboot/sequel that was actually very good, and so expectations were high for Creed II.
Creed II takes up the story three years after the events of Creed. Adonis is now the heavyweight champion of the world and is still trying to live up to his late father’s reputation and name, while forging his own path in the brutal and unforgiving world of boxing. His relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is going well, and her own music career is beginning to take off. But then Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren returning to the series after nearly three decades) reappears on the scene. Since Rocky beat him in the ring in Rocky IV, Drago has been humiliated and living in disgrace in the cold and grey city of Kiev. He has poured all of his anger and frustration into his son Viktor (played by real life boxer Florian Munteanu, making his film debut here), a brute of a fighter who has been turned into a mean fighting machine. Drago issues a public challenge to Adonis to fight Viktor for the heavyweight title. Rocky advises Adonis not to take the fight.
Unfortunately, Coogler is only involved in this film as an executive producer and his assured hand is sorely missed. He has handed over the reins to Steven Caple jr, a friend of his from USC film school. Caple jr’s student film A Different Tree won a short film competition in 2013, and his only other feature was the skating drama The Land.
The script, which has been penned by Stallone himself and first-time writer Juel Taylor, is a little cliched. Stallone certainly knows the mythology of the character and his world and fleshes out the warm relationship between Rocky and Adonis well. But he fails to push the material in a new direction, repeating many of the plot beats from Rocky IV. Creed II works best as a direct sequel to Rocky IV, and the arc of the film is fairly predictable. The film is also a lot more sentimental in nature than its predecessor.
The fight scenes are well choreographed and are quite physically punishing. There is also the obligatory training montage, complete with musical references to previous Rocky instalments, in which Rocky takes Adonis to a desert training camp to harden him up for the rematch. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (The Darkest Minds, etc) often works in close-up to make the bruising encounters more-in-your face and visceral. And those early scenes set in Kiev itself are shot in a grim and largely cold, grey palette that effectively captures the harsh and bleak environment which Drago has been forced to endure for the past couple of decades.
Here Stallone’s Rocky is a mentor and father-figure to Adonis and delivers worldly wisdom and paternal advice. It is another solid performance from Stallone, who delivered a wonderful nuanced performance in Creed, as his character battled cancer. (He holds some sort of record for being Oscar nominated for playing the same character some 40 odd years apart.) Jordan is an incredibly charismatic actor and he has a strong physical presence which is used to good advantage here. Thompson is also very good and adds some emotional heart to the material.
Lundgren gets minimal dialogue here, but he has a commanding physical presence, and does get to exchange verbal jousts with Stallone’s Rocky. Munteanu has a formidable and intimidating physical presence, and he is physically larger than Jordan which adds to the tension of the fight scenes. And Brigette Nielsen briefly returns as Ivan’s former wife Ludmilla, who has shrugged off his disgrace by finding a new and successful wealthy partner in the new Russia.
Creed II works in several subplots that deal with family dynamics, reputation, and various forms of father/son angst and complex relationships. Not only do we get Adonis’ anguish living in the shadow of his dead father, but we get Ivan Drago trying to live vicariously through his son, but we also get a minor subplot dealing with Rocky’s estrangement from his own son Robert (Milo Ventigmilia, from the tv series Heroes, etc).
There have been a number of superb boxing movies, from Raging Bull through to Cinderella Man and Oscar winners like Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter, the wonderful documentary When We Were Kings, and even the original Rocky and Rocky III. While not as good as Creed, Creed II, the eighth film in the series, is still an entertaining and solid entry into the whole Rocky canon. However, the producers need to find a new direction for the next film in the series to refresh the formula if they hope to keep the franchise alive.