Creed II, 2018.
Directed by Steven Caple Jr.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby, Dolph Lundgren, Wood Harris, Robbie Johns, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, and Milo Ventimiglia.
Under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa, light heavyweight contender Adonis Creed faces off against Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago.
How many boxing light heavyweight champions can you name? It’s a question another fighter poses to Adonis Johnson a.k.a. Creed, expressing the belief that to truly become a household name one needs a narrative the whole world can get behind. Extending that sentiment beyond boxing, it makes for a sports drama tale as old as time popping you in the face with as many clichés of the genre known to mankind. Fortunately, such familiar territory results in a rousing film narrative, so long as the execution floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
Replacing the seemingly irreplaceable and supremely talented director Ryan Coogler (who still collaborated with Creed II star Michael B. Jordan earlier in the year on Black Panther, proving that they are an electrifying duo that could strike the inside of a bottle with pinpoint accuracy and thunderous force wherever and whenever they please) is Steven Caple Jr. making his sophomore full-length feature, and even though the presence of Sylvester Stallone as a writer and co-star is still here, the temporary loss of such a skilled filmmaker is definitely felt throughout the running time.
Alas, there is a gripping foundation for a narrative here, and one that can’t really fail when translated from script (there are quite a few cooks in the kitchen here) to the big screen; Creed going toe to toe with Ivan Drago’s son (played by real-life German-Romanian boxer Florian Munteanu). Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the Rocky series, as there are plenty of unnatural bits of characters watching footage from the past on iPads and sports television talk shows driving home the point that Ivan Drago (a returning Dolph Lundgren who, much like Sylvester Stallone in the first Creed, is an action relic of yesteryear bringing his A-game and turning in one of the best performances of his career, although admittedly is nowhere near Oscar-worthy like Sylvester Stallone was a few years ago) unintentionally killed Adonis’ father Apollo Creed in the boxing ring.
Rocky Balboa (still frequently visiting the grave of beloved deceased wife Adrian and too nervous to make amends with the abandonment of his own son and never meeting his grandson) continues to feel that guilt, obviously pulling away when Adonis accepts the prizefight bout. Creed II is wholly predictable as it goes from point A to point B to point C and so on and so forth, often pulling off reversals to past Rocky films while also throwing in a few references for longtime fans of the entire saga, and while the character building is nowhere near as strong this time around, what’s most important is that the filmmakers don’t forget to bring added depth to these individuals.
Adonis is looking to begin a family as earlier scenes focus on his marriage proposal and newfound knowledge that his fiancée Bianca (Tessa Thompson, who once again makes the most of her supportive significant other role, successfully pursuing her ambitious musical career despite suffering from a possibly hereditary auditory medical condition, also receiving a terrific stage performance playing Adonis out to the ring for the climactic flight) is with child. Much of this is conveyed with socially awkward humor (I suppose like most fighters, Adonis is not the best equipped at expressing emotions) where the multiple writers dilemma and tonal inconsistencies stick out like a broken face, but for the most part it works and also helps work Phylicia Rashad back into the picture as a grandma to be.
Everyone deals with Adonis’ decision to take the fight in different ways, but all seem evidently aware that his chances of winning are slim to none and that no matter how the death of his father has affected them in the past and present, he is still going to go through with it. It’s not just about expanding the notoriety of your celebrity presence or feeling like a champion (Adonis becomes light heavyweight champion over some not fully rewarding circumstances) or vain vengeance, but doing what you feel born to do in order to find joy and fulfillment in life, regardless of likely danger. In a more realistic and serious movie, Adonis would face real consequences, but here everything works out as you might expect. Honestly, the most emotion doesn’t come from some nasty injuries, but rather whether or not his daughter will be born with the same auditory condition as Bianca.
There is also an attempt to humanize villains Ivan Drago and his son Viktor Drago (a Russian beast of a man born into mentally abusive conditions and raised in hatred only to brawl), who have brought shame to the homeland with Ivan’s loss to Rocky decades ago and as a result have exiled over to Ukraine. The problem is that it never really resonates as anything beyond silly and underdeveloped (I know certain countries take sporting representation and accomplishments very serious, but not to this degree). There is less finesse to the boxing choreography this time around, and you could probably chalk that up to the change in directors, but there’s no denying that the intentional but well-crafted camera cuts and amplified sound design are fixated on Viktor’s raw power and his penchant for bruising his way to victory, soaking up every bit of pain along the way like a tank. Such theatrics render his unwillingness to succumb to defeat as something out of a WWE match where the valiant heel is determined to either win or go out in a blaze of glory.
The dialogue might be shaky with some speeches coming off cheesier than last time or usual, but whenever Creed II slows down to intimately examine the lives of these fascinating characters both relatively new and old, it allows the self-indulgence fight hype and fist-pumping underdog story to yield rewarding satisfaction. Unorthodox underwater training imagery and one of the best pre-bigtime fight montages the franchise has ever seen only raise the stakes. It’s telling that the frustrated cynic in me couldn’t really find the time to fault Creed II for dropping Rocky’s grippingly sad cancer side story (although you know it will come back when it’s time to finally kill the character off) or that occasionally Adonis can feel whiny (he even acknowledges this calling himself a bitch at one point); sheer entertainment value covers up the scars from a recognizable story that has been beaten to a bloody pulp.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com