(Photo by Barry Wetcher for Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures via EPK.tv)
CREED II— 4 STARS
There’s a line early in Creed II where the aged Rocky Balboa gives young Adonis Johnson advice about how to propose marriage to his long-time squeeze Bianca Porter. He says “turn off your brain and let your heart do the talking.” In its own hammy simplicity, that warbled line speaks for the entire movie. It’s not that our astute brains and discerning movie tastes won’t notice the increase of sentimental melodrama and a regression back to rampant boxing movie cliches and stereotypes. Those tempering traits won’t matter because the heart being switched on is loud and thick with this sequel. Soaked in pugilistic blood, fervent sweat, and warranted tears, Creed II is comfortably ingrained big screen entertainment.
In the past three years, the son of Apollo Creed (a returning and ripped Michael B. Jordan) has climbed the light heavyweight ranks rattling off six straight victories since his climactic name-making and split decision loss to “Pretty” Ricky Conlan from the first film. An authoritative opening win and settled old score against Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (former light heavyweight champ Andre Ward) puts the world title around Donnie’s waist. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) says yes to that aforementioned proposal for marriage and quickly discovers she’s pregnant. The establishment of family roots combines with the championship spotlight of expectations to put more legacy-chasing pressures on Donnie’s shoulders.
Through it all, the great Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, looking and playing every bit his 72 years of age) has remained in his pupil’s corner. His body might be slowed by time and declining health, but his wisdom has only intensified. Rocky’s prudence and Donnie’s pride are challenged by the stateside emergence and public challenge of Viktor Drago (Romanian boxer Florian Munteanu), the son of former Russian champion Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, who could still stare a hole through steel). The neck-cracking hulking specimen and raw talent has trained hard within his Ukrainian stockyard commorancy and been groomed by the enterprising promoter Buddy Marcelle (TV star Russell Hornsby) for the perfect epic grudge match.
LESSON #1: SONS ARE STEPS IN THEIR FATHERS’ LEGACIES — The daddy feels in Creed II bleed through a beefy male cast of muscled hearts. Adonis will not refuse a match to defeat the son of the man who notoriously killed his father in the ring. Meanwhile, the prospect of defeating the name-branded world champion would return honor to the Drago name for Viktor and Ivan, two men cast aside by defeat. Despite coming out eventually victorious all those years ago, the loss of Apollo Creed remains a mournful nightmare that still haunts Balboa, a man who has lost touch with his own son as well. How fathers age through the success of the
LESSON #2: EVERY MAN HAS FALLIBLE NERVES — No man in Creed II is a complete rock even if they look chiseled from one. Each have flaws connected to hidden heartstrings controlled by guarded roots or triggers. The first lesson is made more challenging by the coils of these nerves. Creed II, in engaging and dramatic fashion, reveals the respective failings, fears, and doubts within these men that drive them to act out with sporting physicality and determined competition.
The narrative of this instantly legendary generational clash writes its own headlines and marquees. When Michael B. Jordan and Florian Munteanu dance with their powerful and choreographed jabs, crosses, hooks, and uppercuts, Creed II is amplified handsomely with a proper “big fight feel.” Looser artistic edges were bound to happen from not having virtual newbie Steven Caple, Jr. (The Land) in command instead of Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, so a bit of a supplanted light show is forgivably present. The dulled sharpness is noticeable, but not detrimental. Those jaw-dropping single-take over-the-shoulder fight sequences shot by cinematographer Maryse Alberti in Creed are downgraded into the cinematic cuts and slow motion stitches of Kramer Morgenthau (Thor: The Dark World). Thanks to the eager excitement level jacked up by Ludwig Goransson’s second beat-infused Creed score, this is a place where predictability still pops.
Across the multiple perspectives, the subplots of fatherhood, honor, fears, failure, and legacy are given ample time to connect and resonate. If Sylvester Stallone and his debuting co-screenwriter Juel Taylor borrow parallel elements from Rocky II and Rocky IV, it is because playing with foreshadowed, shared, and reimagined fates within a time-advancing wrinkle has always (even the celebrated Coogler did it to a degree) fit and worked for this franchise. The continued screen presence of Stallone in a second film titled for a different lead character could be seen as preeningly problematic. Instead, the character’s supporting presence remains a tone-setting treat more than a taxing detraction. Michael B. Jordan is still the star and he’s not going anywhere. He more than carries and punches his own weight, as does the active and ever-alluring Tessa Thompson.
Question the labels, points, and places of emotional investment and emphasis all you like, but until the legend dies, the Rocky and Creed films are package deals. They’re going to share this silver screen ring. Stallone and debuting co-writer Juel Taylor have fleshed out more layers of storytelling sinew than most Rocky movies deserve. Beyond the ropes of the squared circle is where Creed II softens us up as armchair and popcorn ring partners. The heart may do the talking, but the fists still say plenty and find themselves pumped into the air with cheers just fine.
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