Synopsis – Under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa, heavyweight contender Adonis Creed faces off against Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago.
My Take – Released back in 2015, the Ryan Coogler directed Creed was an unexpectedly successful film. Despite being a 7th installment, the film breathed new life into the series, mainly because it was less about Rocky himself, but instead focused on a new generation and new breed of fighter in the form of Adonis Creed, son of Rocky’s long-lost friend and former foe Apollo Creed, while Stallone‘s character became more of a guiding voice, all while adding a new ideology. With tremendous performances from both Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, not to mention a strong, a star making supporting turn from Tessa Thompson as Bianca, Adonis’s love interest, the film went on to grab a set of Oscar nominations, Golden Globe wins and about $173.6 million at the box office.
Here taking over the reins from director Coogler, the virtual unknown director Steven Caple Jr. had a mammoth task ahead of him to maintain the momentum build in the earlier film, all the while managing to bring the freshness which made the 2015 film so good. Thankfully, the sequel more than delivers, it flies high. It hits all the notes you want from both a Creed sequel as well as a new Rocky installment. It’s hard to imagine anyone who’s a fan not falling in love with this one too. You’ll literally stand up and cheer as you relish in another solid performance from Michael B. Jordan and the incredibly choreographed boxing matches.
The confidence with which the filmmakers work within the expected realm of the series is really something to behold. Beyond all the trimmings of the rematch promised by the film, the film packs a surprisingly powerful punch, and offers a layered story about the power we give the past and the way our actions resonate now and into the future.
Picking up some time after the last film left off, the story follows Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), who soon after losing to Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew), ends up winning the six next fights, and continues his streak by defeating Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (Andrew Ward) to become the heavyweight championship of the world just like father, Apollo Creed. With Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), the former champ as his trainer on his side, Adonis is on a different high and follows it up by proposing to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson).
Meanwhile, in the Ukraine, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) dreams of a hero’s return to Russia by shaping his son, Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), into an even more powerful boxer than he was. Stuck in exile since his lose to Balboa over 30 years ago, both father and son wake up every morning with a singular goal: beat Creed like Ivan did his father. And seeing Creed’s new title win as a perfect opportunity, Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), a boxing promoter proposes up a match between the two.
However, with the guilt of not calling off the Apollo Creed-Ivan Drago fight still hanging over him, Balboa doesn’t want any part of it. But of course, Adonis wants to avenge his father’s death from the man who has put so much pain into his life. Faced with an intimidating challenge from Viktor Drago, who is way bigger and stronger than him, and the pressure to establish his own legacy outside of his father’s shadow, along with impending fatherhood, Adonis must learn what he’s really fighting for if he’s going to stop the past from repeating itself.
From the opening scenes, you know exactly where the film is headed, as this film is to the original what Rocky II was to the film that started it all: Adonis Creed starts out on top of the world, which means he has nowhere to go but down. He’ll hit rock bottom, linger there for a while, and then drag himself back up for a triumphant return. While this premise may just seem like a way of pleasing fans of the cheesy sequels in the past, it really isn’t that at all, mainly as it’s so well executed that you won’t mind the story’s inevitability. What connects the punches, though, is what’s always been the strength of the Rocky franchise i.e. the drama and the characters. Like the original, the film is about legacy. Adonis can’t escape the past, and he has the extra burden of carrying Rocky’s legacy in addition to his own fathers. At least, that’s how he sees it.
But the film moves past the simple theme of legacy when Rocky asks Adonis, “Why do you need to fight this fight?” Why does Adonis accept that his father’s and his mentor’s problems are now his problems? What does he actually want? The film also spends enough time with Ivan and Viktor that you truly start to feel for them. Training montages flip back and forth between Adonis’s cushy apartment, beautiful girlfriend, and fancy gyms, and Ivan and Viktor’s dingy home, ratty facilities, and generally lonely life. Both sets of characters are just doing what they have to do to improve their lot.
You see, when Rocky IV was released, it wasn’t just a boxing film, and it was practically a propaganda film about the superiority of American values and ideals. In this sequel, it’s no longer about the country, but instead it’s more personal, it’s about discovering what matters most to you in your career and your own life. Whereas the narrative and themes of Rocky IV never dipped below surface level, this sequel takes many of those same elements and takes a deeper dive into why they drive — and in the case of Rocky himself, initially drove — the characters to make the decisions they made and fight the battles they fought.
Are Rocky’s reasons for stepping into the ring against Ivan years ago and avenging the death of Adonis’ father, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), as valid as Adonis’ desire to do the same by fighting Viktor? And how much power should we give the past? Another great part was about how the film focused so heavily on father and son relationships and what that means in three very different circumstances. Rocky and his son (Milo Ventimiglia) are estranged and Rocky doesn’t know how to reach out to him and there is that father-son relationship between Rocky and Adonis.
You have Adonis and Apollo, the son trying to live up to his father’s legendary status but now also avenge his death and you have Ivan Drago and his son where he has raised this child in the shadow of his own failure. Gone is the lifeless Ivan Drago of yesteryear and in its place is a man of humility, who’s taken his failure out on a son who looks like he could swallow his father whole. As writers Stallone and Juel Taylor, wisely gives this relationship time to breathe, and avoids another rehash of Rocky IV, which would have been all too easy given today’s political climate. Another highlight of the film would be the brilliant fight choreography and cinematography to settle scores.
We have seen a lot of boxing films by now, and it is a testament to Caple Jr’s direction that he brings a fresh visual style to the bone crunching, and emotional ups and downs, even though you know who is going to win in the end. I was literally gasping through the final fight, a harrowing and wild battle that feels like some of the best onscreen boxing I’ve seen, film boxing is rarely like the real thing, but this was done in such entertaining fashion that its liberties are easily forgiven. The film’s fights, the main event, are breathtakingly personal. Adonis and Viktor make every punch look and feel real. The camera often stays uncomfortably close, making excellent use of a first person perspective to make you feel like you’re literally in the fight, taking those hits along with the characters. The blood, sweat, and tears feel so immediate that you’ll forget about caring whether you think you know what the outcome is going to be.
The film’s only true weakness is the fact that it does feel formulaic at times. When it comes to the films in the Rocky franchise, you can pretty much predict how each film will end when the set-up takes place throughout the first act. This is both a positive and a negative that this franchise faces, due to the fact that the formula of these films is about as perfect as you get when telling a story like this, but that really doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s extremely effective.
But it’s the performances of its whole cast, including the smaller roles, that makes the film so enjoyable. As the main lead, Michael B. Jordan continues to astound when it comes to his performances on-screen. Even though he hasn’t always been in award-worthy films, his performances have always been out of this world. Once again, he embodies this character with enough emotion and energy to carry this film from start to finish. Surprisingly here Sylvester Stallone takes even more of a secondary position yet manages to hold the screen in his most favorite role as always. Tessa Thompson proves here that she can bring a unique presence to any role. As essentially a supporting character, Thompson steals the show more than once.
Dolph Lundgren is incredible here, in his best role in probably a decade. Bring in a simmering performance, he manages to convey a sense of desperation and heartbreak, while still being kind of terrifying. Equally as impressive is Florian Munteanu who captures that steel monster that his on screen father once was but he plays so much drama and intensity in his expressions. In supporting roles, Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby and Wood Harris play their parts well, while Andre Ward and Milo Ventimiglia are effective in their cameos. On the whole, ‘Creed II‘ is yet another commendable chapter in a long running series that is uplifted by its deep drama, incredible action and intense performances.
Directed – Steven Caple Jr.
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 130 minutes