Film Review: Creed II

Rocky and Adonis are back for a return match and a solid sequel.
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The Rocky saga continues under a different name, but with all the same clichés, in Creed II, an obvious sequel to Creed and a sort-of-stealth reboot of Rocky IV, in which wholesome American grit met steely Soviet aggression.

In that 1985 picture, you’ll remember—you have to, it’s on constant rotation on basic cable—Rocky’s best friend, Apollo Creed, was killed in the ring by Soviet superman Ivan Drago. So the Italian Stallion went to Russia, determined to teach the Moscow Mule a lesson. And—after too many training-camp montages—he did.

In this movie, there’s a promised second-gen rematch—between Ivan’s son, Viktor, and Apollo’s son, Adonis. Of course, the challenge is accepted. And, of course, there are complications.

Will Rocky patch up differences with Adonis to be, literally, in his corner again? Will Adonis navigate his own personal issues? Will American heart triumph, in the end, over Russian heartlessness?

Talk about safe bets.

There hasn’t been a surprise in the Rocky-verse since, well, Rocky, in which—spoiler alert here for the youngsters—he didn’t win. Since then the movies have been almost schematically diagrammed, with an early setback, some personal problems, a new challenge, a lot of workouts—and then a rock-’em-sock-’em fight which bears no relationship to real boxing at all.

And that’s all here again.

It’s satisfying – if you’re the sort of person who’s satisfied by getting precisely the same thing they’ve gotten before. But what’s really interesting is what’s different.

Even more than the superior Creed, the sequel moves Rocky—and Sylvester Stallone—into the background. This spinoff’s version of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey, he pops up every so often for some mild comedy or cornball inspiration. Instead, the franchise, like a championship belt, has been completely passed to Michael B. Jordan as the title character, who invests Adonis with a complicated mix of insecurity, tenderness, anger and aspiration.

And he’s a big part of what gives this movie some heft. That and the warm Tessa Thompson as his hearing-impaired girlfriend. And a father-and-son theme that has Adonis trying to avenge his dad, the young Drago (Florian Munteanu) trying to redeem his and a lonely Rocky trying to reconnect with the adult son he hasn’t seen in years.

Not all of this works, and some of its bro-drama only exaggerates what’s already a male-dominated film. (It’s a movie whose own creed is that old Hollywood faith, Ma Joad-ism—men are mysterious, easily hurt creatures, and it’s a woman’s job to stay strong and be there for them.)

But Jordan really commits, and his scenes with Thompson have genuine warmth and intimacy. And while Stallone is clearly coasting, for a star who thinks he’s not acting if he’s not mugging, that’s an actual relief. There’s also something truly beautiful in the rugged, wind-whipped planes of Lundgren’s face, and a performance that—smartly—makes us come to it.

The moviemaking itself is uncertain. Director Steven Caple, Jr., taking over from Ryan Coogler, doesn’t have his precedessor’s eye; some shots are badly composed, and the style—lots of shaky handheld camerawork—doesn’t always match the content. Nor does the script ever find room for the scene we really want—a fed-up Rocky punching Drago out, again.

And for a film that hopscotches around the globe, there’s no sense of place or current events. It’s unclear why the disgraced, Soviet-era boxer Ivan Drago is now living in Ukraine—or why his son would be seen as a propaganda coup for the Russians. And how can you make a movie about Russian sports without at least acknowledging their love of fake news and chemical shortcuts?

But Jordan and Thompson have a real, easy intimacy, and as unreal as the boxing scenes are—two heavyweights, going toe-to-toe, throwing one bone-breaking punch after another—when were the Rocky films ever about realism? They’re about longshots. They’re about underdogs. They’re about predictable moments you can’t help but cheer—in spite of yourself.

And those things Creed II delivers.