One might think that after eight instalments about the same tale of redemption and triumph, any franchise would be on the ropes at this point, but after the electrifying revival of the Rocky legacy in 2015’s Creed, the series pounds its way back onto the big screen with this year’s follow-up. Creed II is a sequel not only to its namesake, but it also very much continues the decades-old story of Stallone’s icon Rocky Balboa alongside the continuing passing of the torch to Michael B. Jordan’s titular Adonis Creed.
We pick up years after the events of Creed, skipping over the usual slow grind to power, and crowning Donny as heavyweight champion within minutes of opening. Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago, the man who infamously killed Donny’s father Apollo Creed in the ring in 1985’s Rocky IV, returns as a ghost from the past for both Donny and Rocky, alongside his son Viktor, to challenge the new champion. The film’s central focus is on the Creed vs. Drago ‘rematch’, a generational battle 33 years in the making, with Rocky and Ivan each taking their respective corners opposite each other once again.
The premise is foolproof in a way, and whilst the formula for the series has grown stale and predictable to a point, it remains undeniably effective when the film does eventually reach its thunderous climax. Some of the immense craftsmanship and depth on display in the original is lost here, but Steven Caple Jr., new to the director’s seat, makes up for it with a level of intensity and visceral energy the franchise hasn’t seen in a long time. We hear every cracked rib, see every splatter of blood, and when Viktor Drago’s terrifying arms start swinging, we feel the impact of every punch.
In the true spirit of the Rocky films, our hero is somehow always the underdog, even when he’s on top of the world. The emotional and thematic weight promised by the core battle of legacy and revenge feels somewhat unfulfilling at times, though perhaps that’s just a testament to how succinctly and elegantly Creed wrapped up Donny’s growth as a character and embracing of his father’s legacy. Despite the significant screen- time attributed to both Ivan and Victor Drago, neither of them sees any significant development or motivation as characters, and after three decades, Rocky and Ivan’s reunion ending up as little more than a mild case of stink-eye feels like something of an anti-climax.
Ryan Coogler tagged Caple Jr. as director for this instalment, and whilst his absence leaves a noticeable void in the film, Caple does a serviceable job picking up the intimacy and energy of the first. Creed II narrows in on the relationship between Donny and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca; their chemistry is evident, and they make for a compelling, believable couple. Thompson plays Bianca sympathetically and powerfully, but it feels at times as if the film has no time for Bianca’s own tragedies and struggles, reducing her to just another one of Donny’s ‘team’. A large part of the magic that made Creed such a surprising emotional gut punch is missing, even despite the efforts to capitalize on the humanity and emotion of the characters established by Coogler.
A lot of the film feels as if it’s hiding in the shadow of Creed, if not the whole Rocky franchise, repeating many of the same thematic and narrative beats to diminishing effect. The characters endure and rise above this familiarity however, and by the time punches start flying, you’re firmly in Donny’s corner. Jordan solidifies his place as the successor to the Rocky legacy, and if Stallone truly is throwing in the towel after this film, his performance leaves a lasting and touching farewell for a character that’s never stopped fighting.
Despite the formulaic and fairly unsurprising structure of yet another Rocky/Creed movie, the film still manages to keep us rooting for it through compelling performances, thrilling action, and another soundtrack that will have you taking a 10-mile jogging detour on your way home from the cinema. Creed II might not deliver the knock-out blow its predecessor did, but it certainly goes the distance.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.