Perhaps a lesser film than its predecessor but still quite good, Creed II is more like the Rocky movies we remember. It grasps on more desperately to boxing movie conventions while still letting its key characters shine in new and interesting ways. While Creed was a character study about a young man adrift, living in the shadow of his legendary father, and the older man helping to set him down a path to success, Creed II rests more squarely in the comfort of nostalgia and callbacks to Rocky IV, in which Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) took a relentless beating from Soviet powerhouse Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Rocky (and by extension, America) still won the fight but was effectively driven out of boxing, well, until a later sequel brought him back.
Taking over directing duties from Ryan Coogler, Steven Caple Jr. (The Land) begins the movie with the fight that makes Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) the light heavyweight champion of the world, the culmination of his time under the tutelage of the Zen-like Balboa. But what neither man knows is that somewhere in the armpit of Russia, Ivan Drago is training his behemoth of a son, Viktor (first-time actor and Russian boxer Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu) to wipe out any competitor in the ring. All of this is being slyly observed by boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), who has a second-generation rematch in mind, pitting Adonis against the son of the man who killed his father in the ring.
When Adonis and Rocky get word of the potential showdown, Rocky advises against it while Adonis, driven by emotion, wants to take on the younger Drago. Creed II’s motivations seem less nuanced than the first film. One would assume that after years of working with Balboa as both a coach and calming force, Adonis would maybe take stock of the wonderful life he’s built with his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose music career is beginning to take off, and refuse to be baited into a fight that could endanger his life. But instead, he moves from Philadelphia to L.A., where his mother (Phylicia Rashad) lives, and hires a new trainer, Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris), the son of Creed’s original trainer (because everyone in this movie needs to be the son of someone else in the Rocky cinematic universe).
There are other side storylines about the great divides between first and second generations, including Rocky, who is preoccupied with having lost touch with his son; the Drago men seem fixated on the fact that after Ivan’s humiliating defeat, his wife left him, leaving their son motherless (that plot point pays off in unexpected ways); and Adonis himself takes steps to extend his own family, which is a sweet way to involve Thompson more in a film that sometimes struggles to find places for her in a substantial way.
A little too much of Creed II feels familiar, from Ivan’s ordering his son to “break” Adonis in the ring to photos of Apollo Creed and Rocky’s wife Adrian all over the place. But there are moments of undeniable power, such as the inevitable confrontation decades later between Rocky and Ivan. There are actually two matches between Adonis and Viktor, and the key difference (other than who wins) is who trains Adonis. The boxing itself, as one would expect, is brutal, bloody and damaging, and does an admirable job of rousing the audience. Most things about this movie should make long-time fans of the Rocky movies exceedingly happy. Much like III and IV in particular, Creed II seems obsessed with training montages (of both Adonis and Viktor) and prolonged, slow-motion shots of Jordan’s impressively ripped, oiled-up form. It’s hard to argue that he wasn’t born to play this role, both from a physical perspective and being able to handle the complicated, emotional complexity of his character.
Creed II is hit and miss, but it’s a mostly worthy successor to a film so strong, it would almost be impossible to match. Due largely to a cast that brings more to the film than the screenplay (courtesy of Stallone and Juel Taylor) can sustain, the movie delivers in most of the right places, from its primal boxing matches to the quieter moments between Adonis and the two most important people in his life. It’s not a classic like the previous movie, but it gets the job done.
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