The second installment in the rebooted Rocky franchise, Creed II sees the return of Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan as Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed, respectfully. Director Ryan Coogler did not return. Instead,
Steven Caple Jr. takes his place. Creed, when released, completely revitalized the franchise. The series moved away from the Italian Stallone to a fresh face. Unfortunately, Creed II doesn’t advance Adonis’ narrative, instead opting to extend Rocky’s mythology.
The film continues several months after the events of Creed. Adonis, now champion of the world, proposes to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Rocky, still his trainer, looks on with pride. However, in Kyiv, Ukraine, lurks Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan. “Big, fast, strong….[and] a balanced breakfast,” says Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), time has been unkind to the Drago family. While Rocky slurred through a ‘Why can’t we be friends appeal’ in Russia, Drago saw his wife and government abandon him. An outcast, his son has trained to avenge and restore the family name. Only Adonis, son of Apollo, stands in his way.
To these ends, Viktor, with the help of opportunistic promoter Tony Burton (Wood Harris), challenges Adonis to a fight. Adonis takes the bout, causing a fallout with the disapproving Rocky. The old fighter saw his best friend killed at the hands of Drago (a fact the film doesn’t cease to remind you of), and wants Apollo’s son to avoid the same fate. He also questions why Adonis wants to fight. What’s driving this young boxer to take an unnecessary chance? In any event, Adonis predictably loses. Nearly beaten to death, he sustains several broken ribs and a punctured kidney. The rest of Creed II follows Adonis through his healing process, a healing of body and soul and finding the will to fight again.
Part of this healing comes from Bianca. Tessa Thompson carries Creed II. The very definition of ride or die, she carries Adonis’ baby, gives birth, finds time for a music career, and possesses the patience and understanding to contend with a headstrong husband. Her character grows in ways that Adonis doesn’t. Try as Creed II might, the film can’t get away from Rocky hogging the limelight. Mostly, the focus on Rocky springs from callbacks to the previous films. Still, in the end, Rocky beat Drago. Apollo Creed did not. The Drago mythology belongs to him more so than Adonis, making the possibility of diverting the story to Adonis’ legend a near impossibility.
Speaking of the Russian fight, if Thompson leads the cast, then Dolph Lundgren comes a close second. He plays the man left in the wilderness wonderfully. More than “I must break you” quotes, with regret and wounded pride strewn across his face, Lundgren delivers the most emotionally impactful scenes of the film. Without Coogler at the helm, with Stallone and Juel Taylor as screenwriters here, the dialogue and overall story lacks the sharp depth of Creed. Lundgren, however, overcomes such limitations. Though, Munteanu does not. Similarly, the film reduces the Cold War geopolitical overtures of Rocky IV. Instead, opting for pure revenge and pride. Though Creed II broaches the Cold War angle, such geopolitical maneuverings pale in comparison to two abandoned countrymen. The initial fight for the belt, and the rematch, makes the film less about Adonis, and more about revenge against Rocky. A fact not helped by Max Kellerman‘s repetitive ringside commentary.
Rocky, already estranged from his biological son, soon makes up with his “adoptive.” He trains Adonis for his rematch with Viktor, but like any Rocky film, they train in conditions and with tactics never seen in the boxing world. Really, no one punches tires in a middle of a desert or boxes with one foot in a tire unless they’ve made terrible life decisions. Still, the mix of uplifting orchestral strings, horns, and choir, run the viewer to peak anticipation.
Realizing he fought Viktor out of fear, Adonis, comes back stronger than ever, accepting Viktor’s challenge for a rematch. Of the three bouts in the film, obviously the final delivers the best show. Nevertheless, another sign of Coogler’s absence comes in the attention to detail. Try as Caple Jr. might, the initial match lacks authenticity. Yes, I’m mentioning authenticity in a “Rocky” film. Adonis leaves that fight without a mark. Even the easiest fight leaves some kind of mark.
However, Caple Jr. makes up for his looseness in the final bout. The slow-motions hooks and the sounds of body blows and cracking ribs will hurt you. Tight and quick, the boxing choreography rises to the level of Creed, while the soundtrack and CGI’d arena shots will make you miss when boxing was popular. The crowd pleasing ending, makes for open and raucous cheering, even without inducing “USA” chants. Creed II may not advance Adonis’ story, but it’s still a good Rocky film nonetheless.