Creed II is a meaningful and poignant continuation of the Creed/Rocky films, even though it doesn't scale the same artistic heights as its precursor.
Nine years after Sylvester Stallone retired the Rocky franchise with 2006's Rocky Balboa, then lesser-known director Ryan Coogler brought the series roaring back to life with Creed, a continuation/spinoff centered around the son of Rocky's enemy turned friend, Apollo Creed. Now comes Creed II, a sequel that Coogler passed on helming due to his commitment to Marvel Studios' Black Panther movie. And while the followup isn't a runaway success in the way that Coogler's installment was, it's still an effective boxing drama which brings greater depth to the Rocky sequels that inspired it. Creed II is a meaningful and poignant continuation of the Creed/Rocky films, even though it doesn't scale the same artistic heights as its precursor.
Creed II picks up a few years after the events of its predecessor, as Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is on the verge of both becoming the new world heavyweight boxing champion and taking the next step with his longtime singer-songwriter girlfriend, Bianca Porter (Tessa Thompson). However, just as everything seems to be going Adonis' way, he is challenged to a match by Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu): an up and coming boxer, as well as the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the former USSR's champion boxer who killed Adonis' father, Apollo Creed, in the ring during a boxing exhibition match.
When Adonis decides to accept Viktor's challenge, he is surprised that Rocky (Stallone) - his trainer/mentor, who defeated Ivan in the ring following Apollo's death back in the 1980s - doesn't want him to... and even more shocked when Rocky refuses to train him for his match against Viktor. Soon, however, Adonis comes to appreciate just how dangerous his new opponent truly is, and realizes that his usual fighting techniques won't work this time around. With Rocky's help, Adonis pushes himself to not only evolve his boxing style, but also answer the question: who is he really fighting Viktor for?
Based on a script attributed to Stallone and relative newcomer Juel Taylor - with Sascha Penn (Survivor's Remorse) and Cheo Hodari Coker (Luke Cage) sharing story credit - and directed by Steven Caple Jr. (The Land), Creed II recycles plot beats from Rocky II & III, yet manages to make them work in fresh and compelling ways in the context of the Creed franchise. The film similarly revisits the events of Rocky IV, yet succeeds in building on that infamously campy Rocky sequel in ways that bring greater emotional weight to its narrative and (pretty seamlessly) bridges the gap between that movie's outdated Cold War-era mentality and the grounded modern outlook of the Creed films. As a result, Creed II is fairly predictable when it comes to its story's twists and turns, and follows a pretty transparent trajectory as it builds to its big climax. Nevertheless, the formula is executed well here and works thanks to the efforts of the film's creatives and cast.
Caple does an equally commendable job behind the camera on Creed II, even though his directorial approach lacks the impressive technical flourishes (like the single-take boxing sequences) that Coogler brought to the table on the first Creed. The sequel is likewise well-crafted on the whole and further bolstered by Chef DP Kramer Morgenthau's cinematography, which embraces a stylized vérité aesthetic that resembles its predecessor's stylish sense of realism. Creed II also carries over the hip-hop flavoring of Coogler's movie and fuses its soundtrack choices with the more operatic leitmotifs of Creed composer Ludwig Göransson's score to create a sound that's both contemporary yet nostalgic (even when the music is not directly reusing classic themes from the Rocky franchise). Much like their protagonist, the Creed movies continue to carve out a legacy for themselves, yet always keep one foot in the past and continue to honor the traditions of the past (right on down to - of course - including montages of Adonis training vigorously for his next boxing showdown).
Speaking of which: Stallone delivers another moving performance as the older, wiser, and more regretful Rocky in Creed II, but the sequel is more purely Adonis' story than the first Creed was (and appropriately so). This allows Jordan to dig deeper into the character's insecurities about who he is and where he's going in the film, resulting in one of his finest dramatic performances to date. That's not to say Creed II neglects to develop Adonis' relationships with Rocky and Bianca; far from it, the sequel continues to evolve the connection between Adonis and Rocky, while at the same time maturing his dynamic with Bianca (who, thanks in no small part to Thompson, continues to have far more agency and independence than the typical "supportive wife" in a Hollywood movie). And much like she did in the first Creed, Phylicia Rashad brings gravitas to her supporting role as Adonis' stepmother Mary Anne Creed, nearly walking away with the majority of scenes that she appears in.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Creed II is how the sequel takes the Ivan Drago character - who was a pretty cartoonish villain and stand-in for the Soviet Union in Rocky IV - and transforms him into a genuinely tragic figure whose shattered ego and broken spirit have poisoned his relationship with his son, Viktor. The younger Drago certainly benefits from the physicality that real-life fighter Munteanu brings to the role, yet he's also far more emotionally wounded than his intimidating stature and manner would suggest (heartbreakingly so, in many ways). As a result, the Dragos make for far more sympathetic antagonists than some audiences might be expecting going in, and their storyline is all the more engaging and stirring for it. The Drago plot thread further allows Creed II to build on its predecessor's themes about generational trauma and the long shadows that fathers cast on their sons' lives.
All in all, Creed II does a very good job of building upon the first Creed's story and themes in a satisfying fashion, while advancing the overarching narrative of the Rocky and Creed movies at the same time. It's not as inventive or groundbreaking as Coogler's film before it, but that's more of a testament to the high bar that Creed set than any failure on the sequel's part. Those who were fans of the original Creed should largely enjoy its followup and may even appreciate how it casts one of the sillier Rocky sequels in a more serious and tragic light. Here's to looking forward to Creed III and whoever's son Adonis ends up fighting the next time he steps into the boxing ring.
Creed II is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 130 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.
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- Creed 2 (2018) release date: Nov 21, 2018