With this follow-up to 2015’s Creed, the Rocky franchise delivers its first direct follow-up with heft and weight.
Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan Creed II.
From the opening moments of 1979’s Rocky II, Sylvester Stallone’s boxing franchise established a pattern. The sequel’s first five minutes replayed its predecessor’s climax, with nostalgia and sentimentality reigning supreme. Holding on to previous glories would prove a theme of not only this particular film, but of the entire saga that’s now spanned 42 years; however with Creed II, the series finally interrogates exactly what that means.
Returning to the story of Adonis ‘Donnie’ Creed (Michael B. Jordan, Fahrenheit 451), Creed II is the best second jab in the entire saga. It’s not the best Rocky movie, an honour that belongs to 2015’s Creed rather than the 1976 Oscar-winner that started it all, but it is the first to directly continue the storyline in a satisfying, moving and thoughtful manner. Where the character’s first outing packed an unexpected and powerful punch, his second big-screen appearance doesn’t just unleash the same blows. Creed established the young man trying to follow in his late father’s footsteps, and seeking the guidance of his dad’s rival-turned-friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone, Escape Plan II) to do so; Creed II has him wonder why, and how, and whether basking in the past is truly the path to a brighter future.
On top of the boxing world three years after his bout at the end of Creed, Donnie wins the heavyweight championship and the attention of the watching world. He also earns a challenge from aspiring Russian contender Viktor Drago (real-life boxer Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, Black Water), who killed Creed’s father in the ring in the events of Rocky IV three decades prior. Rocky, boasting more wisdom as a trainer than he ever displayed as a fighter, warns against taking the bait. Donnie’s musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Sorry to Bother You) wants them to move to Los Angeles to start a new life. But the younger Drago’s taunts soon get the younger Creed sparring.
With Stallone reclaiming writing duties (with first-timer Juel Taylor) after relinquishing the role on the previous film, Creed II still sticks to the franchise formula in a narrative sense. The larger-than-life challenges, the anguish over whether to jump into the fray or abstain, and the worries about pride and glory are all present, as is the struggle to balance being a boxer with being a boyfriend, son, friend and man. Stylistically, the training montages that show the commitment required to fight and the visual nods to times gone by are all accounted for as well. And yet, both the script and Steven Caple Jr.’s (The Land) direction find time and space to ponder and probe as well as present; to give weight to charting a familiar path.
That’s a vast change from the bulk of movies that Creed II builds upon. Every sequel with Rocky in the title used health, job, money, marital, family and friendship woes as temporary roadblocks – as mere grist for the mill to get Balboa swinging. After letting his on-screen surrogate’s heyday pass in Creed, Stallone recognises that carving a way forward for Donnie involves exploring why he’s making his choices. Creed II’s personal dramas and inner demons mean something because they’re not just buried with a flurry of fists. For a while, after a particularly brutal match, Donnie can’t even strap on his gloves. Seeing him contemplating and question his chosen career stands out, and not just because the screenplay shows the consequences of bashing forth unthinkingly in Viktor.
And yet, while Creed II digs deep, emotionally and thematically – especially in knowing the difference between living in the past and moving on from it – the film also simply lands where it needs to in several areas. Caple Jr. lacks the flair that Ryan Coogler exercised so commandingly in Creed, resulting in competent rather than spectacular imagery, although his editing team (Father Figures’ Dana E. Glauberman, All About Nina’s Saira Haider and Maze Runner: The Death Cure’s Paul Harb) splice both fights and training sequences together with aplomb. Creed II’s performances, too, hit their marks engagingly without punching too far beyond them, with Jordan, Stallone and Thompson each repeating what they did well last time around. Still, heft and depth go far in this eighth franchise instalment. In the ring and on the screen, you can’t connect without both.
Rating: 3 ½ stars ★★★☆
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
US, 2018, 130 mins
Release date: November 29