‘Creed II’ Review: The Rocky Series Is Still Not Down for the Count
Before a series of sequels transformed the Italian Stallion into a shredded boxing superhero who defeated giants and ended Cold Wars, the original Rocky was a humble character study about a perennial palooka and his romance with a shy pet-store clerk. Creed II has a similar relationship to Creed, which was far and away the best film in the series since the first. Creed was more than a clichéd crowd-pleaser or a shameless ego stroke for Sylvester Stallone; it returned this saga to the streets of Philadelphia and to people who live there. It wasn’t a boxing movie; it was a movie that happened to be about a boxer.
Creed II is very much a Rocky sequel. It’s bigger, louder, and more over the top than its predecessor, with a more formulaic story and more absurd boxing matches. It’s satisfying as a pop confection, but it’s not as special or as rich as its predecessor.
It also draws heavily on plot lines and characters from the previous Rocky sequels, most obviously from Rocky IV, where the Italian Stallion (Stallone) avenged the death of his friend Apollo Creed at the hands of brutal Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Creed passed the franchise down from Stallone to Michael B. Jordan, who plays Apollo’s illegitimate son, Adonis “Donnie” Creed. In Creed II, we meet Drago’s son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who’s a freakishly strong and tough boxer like his old man. Naturally Donnie and Viktor are set on a collision course to settle the old score. With Rocky on hand as Donnie’s trainer, and Ivan as his son’s, the two old enemies get to rekindle their own rivalry as well.
There are also elements from Rocky II — like the subplots about Donnie’s love life with his rock-star girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and the birth of their first child — and from III — with its story arc about a successful, complacent champ who’s unprepared for a challenge from a hungrier, angrier upstart. There’s even a little bit of the unloved Rocky V in there. It’s no coincidence that one of Rocky’s pep talks to Donnie includes the instruction to “Go for it!”
Nothing is ever a coincidence in the Rocky franchise. That’s probably because most of the films, including this one, were co-written by Stallone, who loves to draw on the 40-plus years of Rocky mythology. And after eight films, it really is a mythology — one of underdog heroism and never-say-die spirit. Rocky’s classic theme, composed by Bill Conti, has powered a million workouts. Its training montages have inspired millions to race up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. At a certain point, Rocky became something much bigger than its beginnings — arguably to its own detriment, since what made the original film unique was its attention to detail and authenticity, not its bombastic action. There’s no going back now, though, especially not with Stallone this heavily involved. During one of Creed II’s boxing matches, an announcer yells “It all feels so Shakespearean!” He might be the only one, but that’s something Stallone believes with every fiber of his being.
The only Rocky film Stallone didn’t write was the first Creed; it was scripted by Aaron Covington and its director, Ryan Coogler, who brought a real depth to the scenes between Donnie and Bianca, and fiery intensity (plus some incredible long takes) to the boxing scenes. He’s been replaced on Creed II by Steven Caple Jr, who does a capable job of carrying the story forward, even if he can’t quite match Coogler’s deft visual eye. Everything in Creed blended together seamlessly. In Creed II, a few of the scenes and subplots feel superfluous. Donnie sometimes takes a backseat to Rocky (this could also be a byproduct of Stallone’s screenplay work). The fights between Drago and Donnie are solid, but nothing like the exceptional, unforgettable ones in the last movie.
Caple does understand that Rocky/Creed’s penchant for overt sentimentality and grand philosophizing about life is a feature, not a bug. He leans heavily into Creed II’s big themes, mostly about family, and the way traumas can be passed down from generation to generation. Jordan and Thompson still have wonderful chemistry (though their newfound family life could have used more screentime). And Caple does a nice job turning Lundgren’s Drago from a sentient pile of granite into a multidimensional person with relatable goals and mountains of baggage of his own.
Without the work put into the Dragos, the notion of the son of Apollo fighting the son of Ivan could be pretty hokey. Thankfully, Ivan and Viktor are way more fleshed out than any of the Russians were in Rocky IV. Drago has very understandable reasons for training his son and wanting a fight with Donnie, and Lundgren brings genuine pathos to his scenes where he wrestles with his decisions. (Munteanu doesn’t get many lines — just like his pops in Rocky IV — but his eyes are weirdly soulful.) By the end of the film, Ivan Drago seems like less of a villain than a tragic adversary — maybe even a Shakespearean one.
-Phylicia Rashad returns as Donnie’s stepmother, with more screen time than she did in Creed. She’s a welcome presence; a lot of Creed II’s early parts are emotionally chilly, with Donnie fretting over his fight with Viktor and worried about Bianca. Rashad warms the whole movie up.
-The Rocky series has had many training montages through the decades, but Creed II has the first that’s about training a new dad how to take care of a screaming baby. I loved that scene.
-The day it hits theaters Creed II will already be dated in one way: All of the boxing matches in the film are “televised” by HBO — which stopped broadcasting matches last month after decades of boxing programming.
-The amount of references to the old Rocky movies — including a couple of surprise cameos —is really incredible. The people who made Creed II really love Rocky. (Note: One of those people is Sylvester Stallone.)