Review: The Predictable Pleasures of ‘CREED II’

The sequel sticks to formula, but it’s a good formula.

Now you know what you’re fighting for.

–Rocky

The first Creed, itself the sixth Rocky sequel, has only grown in esteem since 2015. Part of that is retroactive affection for now-superstar Michael B. Jordan and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, but it’s really just a damn good movie — an intimate and powerful film that hits nary a false note between its thrilling fight sequences. That it hewed closely to the original Rocky didn’t end up mattering because Coogler’s presentation, and the performances by Jordan, Tessa Thompson, and a never-better Sylvester Stallone, were electrifying — an old thing in a fresh, dynamic package. In short, a tough act to follow.

In his first feature film, handpicked director Steven Caple, Jr. (who has a smattering of TV and short film credits) wisely doesn’t try to fix what ain’t broken. He doesn’t bring Coogler’s inventiveness, either — Creed II lacks a show-stopping sequence like the first’s single-take fight or the ATV run — but he keeps the film together and moving, letting his performers do what they do best and landing a victory by decision, not by knockout.

The plot can be predicted from the trailer or logline alone. Adonis Creed has about five minutes to enjoy being the new heavyweight champion of the world before he finds himself challenged by one of the ghosts from his and Rocky’s past: Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the villain of Rocky IV who killed Adonis’s father in the ring before his defeat at Rocky’s hands, which — at least in the film’s mythology — more or less ended the Cold War. Drago lost everything after that fight, and has spent decades nursing his resentment and training his mountainous son, Viktor (real-life boxer and walking protein shake Florian Munteanu) for domination. Rocky warns Adonis not to take a fight against someone “raised in hate,” but of course Adonis does anyway, and because this is only 30 minutes into the film…well, you know.

Stallone & Juel Taylor’s screenplay, from a story by Cheo Hodari Coker(!) and Sascha Penn — how many writers do you need for something so paint-by-numbers? — may be a pastiche of cliches, but it’s a crowdpleaser. It helps that, like the first Creed, it manages to sidestep the melodrama that plagues less-mature films. Adonis and Bianca move forward in their relationship (and then some), but you never doubt that they’re a team. There’s no tiresome subplot about Adonis being changed by fame or tempted by another woman. Rocky’s disapproval of the Creed-Drago ticket stings like a betrayal, but their bond proves all the stronger, too.

Even the Russians carry a few of the film’s most melancholy scenes with minimal dialogue, making the younger Viktor a far more sympathetic antagonist than Ivan ever was. It’s wild to see Lundgren stalking a ring again, as he still appears chiseled in granite, but his eyes are a window to a broken and desperate soul. His first sit-down with Rocky in Adrian’s Bar carries the earned weight of a forty-year-old franchise, but it’s a brief moment of unpredictability in a film committed to delivering the rise-and-fall-and-montage-and-rise-again palooka machismo of the film that inspired it.

Nevertheless, the charisma and naturalism of the core cast wins the day. Michael B. Jordan is a sculpture. He returns here a vastly improved screen fighter over his (still very good) 2015 performance, lightning-fast, a cyclone of intensity against Munteanu’s .50-caliber punch. It’s thrilling to watch them go at it; it’s thrilling to watch Adonis train in the desert; it’s thrilling to watch Jordan do pretty much anything. In a recent interview with Kyle Buchanan at the New York Times, he described his commitment while playing Black Panther’s Killmonger as so lonely and transformative, he didn’t recognize himself when he looked in the mirror at the end of shooting. That same level of commitment is obvious in his return to his breakout role, channeling some of his own inner restlessness in Adonis’s: Reminded by his adoptive mother (Phylicia Rashad) that he’s world champion, he snaps back “Why don’t I feel like it?” What good is fame when there’s so much within you still unresolved, and always another mountain to climb? He’s not fighting Drago, as he eventually realizes, to avenge his father, but because it’s the only way to write his own, separate story on his own terms.

Similarly, Thompson seems to actively be pushing back against the pat “supportive fiancee” role as originally designed, providing a rainbow’s worth of shading and nuance to scene after scene. The domestic stuff in Creed II really works in spite of itself because of the rawness she and Jordan bring to those moments; no one wants Adonis to suffer the same fate as his father, but it’s his mindset and his priorities that can win or lose the fight before he ever steps into the ring. This makes the film perhaps more effective as a character study than as a down-the-line sports movie, doing just enough to make up for the latter’s repetition (not to mention the most obnoxiously over-explaining TV commentators in recent memory). Stallone, for his part, brings all of the pathos he gave to Creed (which should have earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), but there’s a weariness in his affectations that the film’s overall lack of freshness can’t cover for.

My crowd loved the film; they whooped and cheered and chattered throughout, feeling every subsonic punch and nearly levitating out of their seats when the immortal fanfare kicked in at the most obvious third-act moment. Even if Creed II largely serves to remind you of how special the first Creed was, or is just a continuation of the Rocky saga you already love, those high notes are high enough to make for a satisfying night out. Don’t expect the lightning-in-a-bottle artistry that allowed Coogler’s entry to transcend its genre, but this Creed is still worth rooting for.


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