A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2018


2018, PG-13, 130 mins.


Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed  /  Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa  /  Tessa Thompson as Bianca  /  Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago  /  Florian Munteanu as Viktor Drago  /  Phylicia Rashād as Mary Anne  /  Wood Harris as Tony Burton  /  Andre Ward as Danny Wheeler  /  Raul Torres as Fish Seller

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.  /  Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone 




At the risk of mixing sports metaphors, 2015's CREED was a real cinematic curveball thrown at audiences, especially to fans of the ROCKY series in general.  The Ryan Coogler directed soft reboot/sequel to the iconic Sylvester Stallone pugilist franchise was far greater than it had any business of being, and it imbued a renewed lease on life for a series that, to be fair, went out on a high note with 2006's ROCKY BALBOA, which in turn came out after a series of so-so to mediocre sequels over the last few decades.  

Going into CREED I felt for certain that it was a petty cash grab, but the resulting effort was arguably one of the most dramatically grounded and thematically dense entries since the series introductory installment way, way back in 1976.  By some, shall we say, Italian Stallion-esque underdog miracle, CREED had serious legs to qualitatively go the distance and was a superb entertainment. 

This brings me to the painfully inevitable sequel, CREED II, which, like a ROCKY II long before it, has mighty big shoes to fill in order to stand up proudly on its own two feet as a worthwhile follow-up entry.  Added pressure to succeed is also there, seeing as this CREED also serves as a continuation of the popular, yet ultra comic booky ROCKY IV from 1985, released at the height of the Cold War that featured the most famous brawler from Philadelphia battling a ruthlessly stoic and steroid infused Russian brute that - gasp! - killed the former's best friend in the ring.  In most respects, CREED II has to appease die hard fans of ROCKY IV (perhaps the most over the top and campy ROCKY entry) and continue the authentically drawn characters and story beats from CREED I.  It's safe to say that CREED II has just as much heart as its predecessor, but there's more of a nagging sense of familiar genre formulas that stick out like proverbial sore thumbs and hold it back from achieving the greatness of what came before.  CREED II is rousing, entertaining, and gives fans what they want, even though severe bouts of overt deja vu will wash over most audience members watching it; that's paradoxically both a good and a bad thing. 



Flashing back to ROCKY IV three decades-plus ago, you may or may not remember Rocky emerging triumphant against Ivan Drago (in a then career jump starting performance by Dolph Lundgren), who previous to the match literally punched Rocky's BFF Apollo Creed to death in a charity exhibition bout.  Now, what does this have to do with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), Apollo's son?  As CREED II opens we see Adonis finally emerge victorious as a newly crowned heavyweight champion, which, unbeknownst to him, puts him right in the vengeance fuelled crosshairs of the long since retired Ivan Drago, whose loss to Rocky in the mid-80's tarnished his reputation so badly that he lost his wife, his livelihood, and even his country.  Drago is now living vicariously through his unfathomably powerful son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who's quickly climbing the ranks of the heavyweight boxing world.  Ivan and son make a trip stateside to Phillie to visit Rocky at his restaurant, in arguably the tensest scene in the film that doesn't involve a boxing match, during which time the emotionally wounded, but aggressively determined ex-Soviet boxer plainly and sternly informs Rocky that "My son will break your boy!" 

Adonis, being just as stubbornly focused as his father before him, wants to jump at the chance to defend his dead papa's honor in defeating Viktor Drago in the ring while paving his own path as a boxer so that he won't have to live in the shadow of Apollo.  Rocky wisely remembers what happened to Apollo when he went into his match with Ivan, leading to his murder, so he quickly declines to train Adonis for the match to come.  Rather predictably, Adonis gets savagely beaten by Viktor when they lock horns in the ring, leading to a long and grueling stay and recovery in the hospital.  His girlfriend and so-to-be-wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is also expecting a baby, which complicates matters for the bloodied and battered Adonis.  However, in pure series fashion, the elderly Rocky sees that with the right training and recovering "the eye of the tiger" that Adonis could beat the seemingly unstoppable Viktor. 

Cue the training montage...final bout...and unavoidably rousing, feel-good conclusion. 

Anyone that's watched any previous ROCKY movie will be able to predict the plot machinations of CREED II from a mile away.  No single story beat leads to any surprise sense of closure.  On a negative, CREED II feels like a somewhat lazy assembly line product that's haphazardly thrown together using the franchise's most well worn and overused troupes.  Considering the wonderful sense of revitalizing freshness of CREED I as a ROCKY cinematic universe re-launch, it's sort of disheartening to see Stallone (co-writer here) going back to the narrative well.  If anything, CREED II is a mishmash remake of ROCKY III and IV that seems engineered for maximum fan servicIing first and delivering innovative new twists and turns a distant second.  Another big loss here is with Steven Cable Jr. replacing Coogler behind the camera (whose BLACK PANTHER responsibilities forced him out of this sequel).  Cable Jr. is a decent director with a good eye for performance detail, but he lacks the sure fire stylistic hubris of Coogler before him, who got remarkably creative on a visual level, especially with CREED I's show stopping one take steady cam boxing sequence.  Overall, the boxing footage here is competently rendered and packs a thunderous wallop, but overall lacks Coogler's graceful styling. 

Perhaps that's why I found myself gravitating to everything occurring outside of the boxing matches in this sequel, and perhaps more so than in previous ROCKY entries.  CREED II proudly continues the first film's themes of fathers and sons and how both Rocky and Adonis struggle, in one form or another, to stay connected and in synch with one another despite the ideological gulf that grows between them (that, and poor old Rocky hasn't spoken to his own son for years, which leaves him assuming a surrogate father role for Adonis).  Complimenting their story arc is that of Ivan and Viktor, the former of which is given infinitely more raw character development and sense of purpose now than he ever did before in ROCKY IV (Ivan Drago was, in all essence, a one note cartoon villain in that 1985 film).  Ivan has emerged as a person made weak by past and multiple humiliations, which actually adds a whole new layer of empathy to him.  When he shows up and confronts Rocky in the film - with decades of bottled up rage - his quiet intensity is palpable.  You actually feel for his grief and pains and understand why this man is driven by years of wanting revenge on Rocky and his family.  Lundgren has arguably never been better in a movie before, and his understated hostility he displays in the film makes him arguably more relatable and threatening as a villain that's not quite so black and white this time. 

 Of course, the film's other performance trifecta of Stallone, Jordan, and Thompson help elevate CREED II well above its adherence to stale conventions.  It could be debated that the latter ROCKY sequels (with the exception of ROCKY BALBOA) lost track of what really mattered in these films - the wounded humanity of the characters and how they all grew to rely on the other for emotional support.  Thankfully, CREED II contains the same acting riches of its prequel, and Jordan in particular continues to impress as his impossibly ripped and tenacious, yet deep down humbled and flawed titular hero.  His poignant scenes with Thompson, yes, do in fact remind me of the same unforced chemistry that Stallone once had with Talia Shire's Adrian.  And Stallone himself remains an absolute treasure in this series, and he fits so smoothly and assuredly into this role - easily one of the most iconic and likeable on-screen characters in the history of cinema - that it's easy to overlook how damn good he is in these films.  Even better, these new films allow for Stallone to finally play up to the character's ever increasing fragility and age, whose past years and Herculean feats in the ring are well behind him. 

CREED II is kind of a tough nut to crack.  Part of me loved elements of this involving and fairly well oiled sequel, whereas other parts of me with the more cynical and detached edge really wanted to throw up my hands in disappointment for how paint-by-numbers the overall story is on display.  No one needs to consult a spoiler heavy review in order to find out what happens by the film's third climatic act: it's all telegraphed in the most generic manner possible.  I guess if you like the ROCKY films then this entry is critic proof.  If you're a lover of the franchise and, in particular, CREED I then CREED II will placate your expectations, but emerge as a less fulfilling continuation of the saga of Adonis Creed and Rocky Balboa.  Relative to this genre, though, CREED II still contains more legitimate heart than most of the inferior ROCKY sequels, and the manner that Stallone and company continue to make these characters so warmly inviting makes me - gosh darn it - wanting to see more.  Or maybe, just maybe, Rocky will finally retire from action altogether to a fully retired life of solitude with his pet turtles, realizing that he has given all that he could to his boxing pursuits, in and out of the ring.  .  

That would be okay as well.  

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