CREED II. Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad. Directed by Steven Caple, Jr. 130 minutes. Rated M (Violence).
‘Creed’ sounded like a spectacularly bad idea, a desperate attempt to revive the 39-year-old ‘Rocky’ franchise earlier laid to rest by its creator, Sylvester Stallone. Why would audiences care about the trials of Adonis “Donnie” Creed, the son of a character killed off thirty years ago in ‘Rocky IV’? Much to everyone’s surprise, the film was a rousing success, anchored by a ferocious, star-making turn from Michael B. Jordan and a bona-fide, real-deal character performance from Stallone, which netted him his second Oscar nomination for playing Rocky Balboa, arguably the prolific writer-director’s most beloved creation (his first nod came all the way back in 1975). Smart money attributed the success of the film to the involvement of Ryan Coogler as co-writer and director. Coogler, hot off the successful indie ‘Fruitvale Station’, demonstrated a confident grasp of studio filmmaking, balancing powerful, timeless themes with a narrative that both honoured the films that preceded it and forged its own identify. With Coogler having since moved on to write and direct a little cultural phenomenon called ‘Black Panther’ (though staying on in an executive producing capacity), some trepidation about this follow-up was justifiable. This was only strengthened by the announcement that ‘Creed II’ would depict a showdown between Adonis and Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, the Russian boxer who killed Apollo Creed back in ‘IV’. Resurrecting the rivalry that boiled down to a clumsy Cold War metaphor (if I recall correctly, Rocky just about cured U.S.-Russian relations at the end of the movie) while doubling down on the already slightly implausible “the son of a champion is also a champion” trope seemed foolish. I am happy to report that any nervousness was misplaced. It’s not quite the knockout that ‘Creed’ was, but ‘Creed II’ uses its committed cast and the relatable core of its narrative to serve up another winner.
After losing his title fight at the end of the first film (but gaining the attention and respect of the boxing community), things are looking pretty good for Donnie (Michael B. Jordan). We learn that he’s since gone on a six-fight winning streak, and this movie opens with Donnie make it seven, defeating Danny Wheeler (Andre Ward) to become the heavyweight champion of the world. He has his father’s rival-turned-friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in his corner, and his relationship with singer-songwriter Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is on the up and up, with the pair getting engaged and Bianca learning that she’s pregnant.
There’s a storm brewing on the horizon though. More specifically, in Ukraine, where ex-boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) have set their sights Rocky’s protégé. After Rocky humiliated Ivan in Moscow, Ivan lost everything – his career, his country, his wife… Fleeing his disgrace to Kiev, Ivan has spent decades training his hulking son into a veritable wrecking ball in the ring. When Viktor is not labouring at a local factory or running laps around a nearby industrial park, he’s in the gym with Dad, alternating his training between weights, working the heavy bag, and beating down any fighters foolhardy enough to go toe to toe with him. His boxing style is all brute strength, overwhelming his opponents with body shot after body shot. Munteanu, an amateur heavyweight boxer nicknamed “Big Nasty”, stands at 6’4”, 110kg and boasts a 68-10 record. He is simply the perfect find for the role. He isn’t required to say a great deal because his character is a conduit for his father, a breathing, brawling manifestation of Ivan’s hate. He just needs to look mean and lethal, and boy does he ever.
With the assistance of ever-so-slightly-slimy fight promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), the undefeated Viktor makes his way to Philadelphia, where he and Ivan lay down a challenge for Adonis. In response, Rocky lays down his own ultimatum to Adonis: if he accepts the fight, then he will have to do so without Rocky in his corner. Apollo died after Rocky’s arms after his brutal showdown with Drago Snr., and Rocky won’t condone Adonis risking the same fate against his raw but gifted son. Despite Rocky’s best efforts, Adonis accepts the fight and, with Rocky remaining true to his word and stepping down as his coach, moves to Los Angeles to begin his training under Tony “Little Duke” Evers (Wood Harris), the son of his late father’s trainer. The pacing up to this point moves so rapidly that you innately know that this fight won’t be the end of the Adonis-Viktor feud – you’re prepared for a twist in the tale. However, the screenplay by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone (from a story by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker) manages to surprise at the midpoint, allowing the second half of the film to explore new and interesting territory as Adonis must rebuild himself as a fighter and as a man.
Director Steven Caple Jr. does a fine job of distinguishing the film’s by now compulsory training montages from other ‘Rocky’ films, but also from each other, crafting a stark contrast between Adonis’ aquatic training in the first half and his retreat to a decrepit desert camp in the second. The notion of water as both resistance and healer, as well as framing the pitiless sun and endless sand as the fire from which Adonis can be reborn, gives DP Kramer Morgenthau plenty to work with. The juxtaposition developed between his smooth underwater lensing and his sun-drenched Californian desert-scapes handily encapsulates Adonis’ resurrection, and the two halves contribute to some chest-thumpingly triumphant and inspiring moments.
Overall though, Morgenthau’s work isn’t quite as impressive as that of Maryse Alberti on the first film (much was rightly made of her spectacular capturing of an early bout in one-take). It’s never deficient, but it also never really wows you. Composer Ludwig Göransson also only really gets to unleash toward the end of the movie, finally delivering on the sonic promise that marked his blending of contemporary drum machine beats with the traditional ‘Rocky’-franchise horns as one of the film’s best assets. The writing is a little duller this time too, the character moments and soul-searching speeches a little more forced. This nit-picking all flows down from my main objection to ‘Creed II’ – simply that it’s not ‘Creed’. This movie only seems to really flag when it’s held up to its predecessor. Adonis’ opponent aside (who this time is a little more tightly worked into the narrative), nothing else has been improved on between the films, and the loss of Coogler has meant that a few key areas have deteriorated somewhat. The first movie was such a wonderful surprise that it set a fantastically high bar, one that proves too difficult to clear on several fronts.
That said, there are plenty of great things that they’ve transferred successfully from the first movie. Tessa Thompson and Michael B. Jordan still share a deep and compelling chemistry. Thompson, whose Bianca fights her own battle with a degenerative hearing disorder, is just so giving as an actress. Bianca feels like the most understanding partner in the world, but she’s also willing to put herself out there for her man and her family. Across from her, Jordan is still utterly convincing as Adonis, emotionally and physically. He carries himself like a fighter, throwing himself and his sculpted body into his training and fights with fervour. He still has that fire burning behind his eyes, the fire to both live up to yet outgrow the father that he never knew. It remains a towering role that Jordan fills, all the way through the challenging arc of a character compelled by a heady mix of love and hate to push himself through every obstacle thrown in his way.
Stallone too returns to this sequel with intent, flexing the same acting muscles that surprised audiences and critics last time around. Balboa is a character that he knows in his marrow. He’s wearied and beaten down by life, but he sees Adonis and the next generation as his chance to give back. Estranged from his son Robert, Rocky rarely lets crack show in his granite-hewn face, but when they do rise to the surface, they do so with real emotional heft. If Stallone is granite though, then Dolph Lundgren is a glacier. His imposing façade and downturned mouth give the action veteran a menace that is not easily taught. After 33 years, Lundgren returns to the role that launched his career, injecting it with a fascinating blend of venom and sorrow. When the film first introduces his ex-wife as a core part of his and Victor’s drive – “that’s why she left us”, it’s the way that Lundgren digs up the reference that makes it land so heavily, deepening their motivations from revenge to regaining a shared sense of self-worth.
‘Creed II’ fundamentally takes the core thematic preoccupation of ‘Creed’ – that of father-son relationships, be they biological or surrogate – and doubles down on it. This doesn’t result in twice the returns, thanks so some flashes of clunkier filmmaking, but it does ensure that the beating heart of the franchise remains intact. This and its excellent cast ensure that the franchise remains incredibly satisfying. It might not last the full twelve rounds against its justly lauded predecessor, but ‘Creed II’ could face down most modern sports movies and walk away victorious.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 29.