I did love me some Creed, Ryan Coogler’s 2016 continuation of the Rocky franchise, which put Stallone on the back-burner in favour of Michael B. Jordan, but still found a way to craft an engaging two-hander with them, mixing in an interesting examination of African-American life, dreams and legacy at the same time. In my review of Creed – which I rated the 4th best film of that year – I closed by positing that the future of the franchise rested rather heavily on the inevitable sequel, and on whether the same cast and crew could be retained.
Well, the director did move to the producer’s chair, being now a bit more concerned with events in Wakanda, and in his place comes Steven Caple Jr, a respected filmmaker if not quite tested at this level. He does have the same cast to work with, but I would be lying if I said that the premise of Creed II filled me with an abundance of confidence, looking very much like a re-tread of Rocky IV. So, does Creed II keep the franchise moving along nicely, or is it time to throw in the towel?
Three years on from his eruption onto the public stage, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Jordan) celebrates being heavyweight champion with fiancée Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and trainer Rocky Balboa (Stallone). But trouble is on the horizon in the form of Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Victor (Florian Munteanu), who seek revenge for Rocky’s defeat of Ivan over thirty years previously. In the shadow of his father’s death, and soon to become a father himself, Donnie faces his greatest threat yet.
It’s hard not to like Creed II. At its core, it’s a very well put together film about a rise, fall and rise again, with good performances and heaps of interpersonal drama very well portrayed. But, just as Creed felt at times to be like a rehash of Rocky, Creed II takes the Rocky IV formula and largely replicates it with new players, and that is a fairly serious sticking point when it is the second time in a row.
Rocky IV was both cartoonish in its general presentation and pathetically predictable, and Creed II replicates the second sin if not really the first. A cursory look at the general premise is all anyone would need to have a very firm idea of where Creed II goes, from our opening look at Donnie at the height of his personal and professional life, to a crippling second act bout where he does things all wrong, to his attempts to set everything right before the credits roll. Throw in some significant life changes, a marriage proposal straight from a Mills & Boon novel in its scripting, more falling outs with Rocky and a rest in terms of his relationship with the deceased father he never really knew, and you start to get the idea.
And it isn’t that Creed II is a total facsimile. Indeed, it should be praised for its subtle efforts to turn Ivan Drago into an actual character instead of a caricature: probably the best part of the film if I am being honest, this wounded behemoth still seeking redemption thirty years after his greatest failure, and his son who doesn’t really understand why his lifetime of training is being subverted by a quest for Russian approval (the best damn line in the film is Lundgren’s “I lost” when trying to explain why the Russian establishment no longer wanted anything to do with him). Yes, its foundation is the inherently goofy and over the top events of Rocky IV, but when stuff is good stuff is good. Also welcome is the continued focus on Bianca as a character in and of herself and not just an accessory for Donnie. It’s paced well, edited well and does everything you would expect of it.
But we have been here before, in the 1980’s and just a few years ago. Creed and Rocky falling out and reconciling already feels tired, and the nature of the two fights featuring Victor Drago parallel much of Rocky IV, right down to the choices of venues and the focus on nationalist sentiment as a perverse accompaniment. And having gone through one film where he moves out of Apollo Creed’s shadow, Donnie promptly moves back under it, repeating much of the same journey as he did before. I was expecting more of this franchise If I was being honest.
Caple Jr’s answer to the question of where Donnie should go is just revelatory enough. Other films in this franchise go out of their ways to shock or subvert, such as with Rocky and Creed losing the final fights in their respective first films, or with Apollo Creed’s death, or even with how Rocky ends up back at the bottom of the pile in V. Creed II doesn’t have anything like that in itself, not even wanting to risk Donnie losing his opening fight with Victor Drago, a quandary of plotting that Vince McMahon steps in to solve (if you watch this film and watch pro-wrestling, you’ll understand what I mean).
Rehashing Cold War stereotyping is the wrong choice, when much more potent political targets, like #Blacklivesmatter for example, are right there waiting to be taken advantage of. Perhaps that’s for Creed III but coming off Jordan’s mesmerising turn as the perfectly sympathetic villain Killmonger in Black Panther, Creed II comes off, dare I say it, as slightly gutless in not attempting a similar level of societal and political commentary.
Instead of anything like that, Creed II tries to frame its plot as a tired “What are you fighting for?” question, as if the answer will be anything other than what was given in the first one. In this, Creed II is taking more cues from the past, namely Rocky III, as the hero needs to find a way past ego and bravado to once again reach the top. But he already did all that a few years ago!
As is so often the case, a humdrum plot can be saved by the quality of production and Creed II has quality to spare. Jordan has fast established himself as one of the best in Hollywood and will probably be headlining films for decades to come: for these films, he’s managed to demonstrate an immense dedication to his craft, taking real punches in the pursuit of as much reality as possible. Meanwhile Stallone, now in the twilight of his career, could probably give it all up right now with Rocky and be satisfied with where things have been left. The two still work so well together, and are able, by themselves, to elevate otherwise average material.
Thompson continues to impress as Bianca, and Phylicia Rashad is decent, if understated, as Donnie’s long-suffering mother. Lundgren has never been the best actor but manages to showcase an intriguing enough bond with Munteanu. It’s a well-acted production, though there are some odd inserts here and there, like Russell Hornsby’s seemingly villainous fight promotor who turns up in a few scenes to look vaguely menacing.
And visually. Just as Creed did, the sequel is able to pop. The fight scenes are shot with a visceral intensity, where Caple Jr and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau really make you feel every landed punch, lacerated kidney and broken rib. There might not be anything as inventive as the one-shotter fight from the first offering, but Caple Jr knows what he is about, in the, by-now, traditional montage sequences, in scenes where Donnie adjusts to the awkward reality of being a father, or where Rocky confronts the failure at parenting he has managed to come up with. Still, a certain amount of energy isn’t there like it was a few years ago, and it is fairly noticeable at times.
Creed II is, unfortunately, just one of those films that I like less and less the longer that I think about it. It has a fine cast, decent visual direction and another excellent effort from the musical department. In terms of the depiction of the sweet science, it can count itself among the upper echelon. But it lacks a certain spark of ingenuity, that we experienced in Creed, and too often falls back on well-worn plots and characterisation, seemingly afraid of saying anything truly bold. That might be for an inevitable trilogy round-off, but I fear that Creed is not so much floating like a butterfly than it is starting to treat water. Partially recommended.
(All images are copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures).