Rocky is a hero because he got up. And so is Sylvester Stallone. The franchise he’s been shepherding for half a century just keeps going. But sometimes it’s okay to just not take the fight, even when the crowd’s singing for it.
2015’s punchy, nimble Creed successfully re-orientated the Balboa brand around a new generation, Michael B. Jordan putting in a powerhouse performance as the son of Apollo. Hollywood franchises may be folding in on themselves like Inception’s boulevards, but thanks to the energies of regular collaborators Ryan Coogler and Jordan, Creed was the best example of a studio franchise embracing the past in service of something that felt new.
Creed also never cried out for a sequel, even if its success made it inevitable. Its arc was satisfying and judiciously self-contained: Adonis, or Donnie, moved from unloved to loved. Embarrassment over his origins — as a product of an affair — turned to family pride. He went the 12 rounds with the world champ and won the most coveted prize of all: self-acceptance. Where do you go after that?
When you’re up, the only path is down. If Creed was about the pain of success, Creed II is about the pain of failure. The film opens with Donnie at his professional apex, earning the championship belt and taking the first steps to a stable, fulfilling family life with Bianca (Tessa Thompson). But then Viktor Drago blows in from the East, a human Siberian gale of impossible right hooks and Old World hurt. Played by Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu, Viktor and his father Ivan (a permanently scowling Dolph Lundgren), show up in Donnie’s backyard to spoil the party and remind him of the Creed scalp the Drago name took all those years ago. Donnie takes the bait. And gets smashed to pieces.
Failure is more interesting than success, but translates less readily to cinematic motion, and it’s here that the screenplay and direction struggle to match the potential of its ensemble of excellent performers. Creed’s Ryan Coogler brought freshness, emotional rawness and a heady beat to the first film’s photography and script (which he wrote with Aaron Covington), but he has has since headed off for Wakandan pastures, and his loss is keenly felt. Stallone has taken over writing duties with Juel Taylor, and direction has been passed to relative rookie Steven Caple Jr. (this second film after 2016’s The Land).
The result is a film, with its fun, kind of gimmicky, plot conceit and competent, undaring execution, that feels very much like another watchable, montagey boxing film. It does a good dance, but the knockout never lands.
Sons and fathers dominate the film: Donnie and his absent Apollo, who hovers in TV highlights like Hamlet’s ghost; Ivan and Victor; and Rocky and his estranged son and grandson, whom he now suddenly has on his mind. Of the three, it is actually Ivan and and Viktor that are the most compelling. Ivan’s lost brought shame and sorrow upon the Drago name, condemning the family to a penniless, degraded existence and driving Viktor’s mother (Brigette Nielsen, Stallone’s ex-wife) into the hands of a new, moneyed husband.
Munteanu, and Caple Jr’s direction of him, deserve credit for not overplaying the antagonist’s barbarism. He’s a beast, but his eyes flick to his father for reassurance. Viktor, like the Donnie we first met, is a big, hurt abandoned child who wants someone to be proud of him. He actually enters the final confrontation with bigger stakes than Donnie, which is a weird structural niggle.
Creed II’s closing match feels like it comes quick, and in the rush it glosses over some things. What about Bianca’s hearing loss? Or Rocky’s cancer, which provided so much emotional weight to the first film? The film’s not heartless — the performers are too good for that — but it is noticeably less subtle than what came before. It’s an efficient bruiser, with not quite enough razzle-dazzle. Conor Smyth
Creed II is out on wide release.