The first two “Rocky” films offered insightful, powerful and quality examinations of manhood, legacy and determination. The third and fourth fall into formula and even borderline parody yet remain highly enjoyable. The fifth should never be spoken about in good company, and the sixth was a return to form even if not quite on the level of the first two.
“Creed” however was a masterpiece. Every bit as good as the first “Rocky,” it was a powerful, fresh and compelling refocus of the character-driven story for a new generation. Superbly scripted, acted and directed, it set a new template as to how to refresh/restart a franchise the right way and was easily one of the best films of 2015. That it achieved the critical and commercial success it did is a testament to those sadly infrequent occurrences when truly great movies do well.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s absence this time around is notably felt in “Creed II,” a more workmanlike, listless follow-up to the giddy highs of its predecessor. “Creed II” still delivers the goods, and considering it’s only his second film Steven Caple Jr. offers remarkably assured work. Even so, it can’t quite go the distance. Fights are less dynamic, philosophy is more dime store, characters are less endearing, and its focus less one of self-actualisation and more of self-gratification.
“Creed II” doesn’t feel inauthentic in the way some sequels can, its heart is in the right place and the strong fundamentals of its predecessor are there, but it feels like it’s both overreaching and struggling to articulate itself as well as its more impressive older brother which settled for a simpler theme and story and then manifested itself into a vehicle of vibrant energy and touching grace.
Serving as something of a sequel to “Rocky IV” as well, the surprise of “Creed II” is it works better on that front than it has any right to. The hiring of the immense physical specimen and fighter Florian Munteanu as Drago’s son makes sense once you see the film. A mostly wordless performance, bar a few lines delivered in Russian, what easily could’ve been the weakest link actually becomes one of its biggest strengths.
The young Viktor Drago’s motivations are decidedly more clear and sympathetic than those of Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed. Viktor seeks acceptance from a disgraced father, one who himself is using his son as a means of gaining back his own acceptance as a man, and he holds understandable hostility towards a frosty mother that abandoned him and a hostile country that rejected him before he was born.
Munteanu, who looks as if ‘Fifty Shades’ star Jamie Dornan had shaved his head and absorbed a whole other Jamie Dornan, offers strong work with what little screen time he has. Full kudos goes to Caple and Stallone who show obvious care to avoid the issues that come with fighters when asked to act in non-action scenes (*cough* “Haywire” *cough*).
Helping him as well is Dolph Lundgren, the actor reprising one of the more memorable (if not exactly challenging) roles of his career. Ivan Drago’s loss in the 1980s ruined his life, and there was a chance here to really explore the true impact of loss and professional disgrace on sporting heroes in the decades since. The film certainly touches upon it, more than once, but never goes into the deep dive that such a rich idea deserves which still sadly, three decades on, leaves the older Drago an underdeveloped antagonist.
Yet both have one of the better subplots of the film in a story otherwise focused on Adonis Creed’s pride. Pride, the luxury of the strong, is one of the trickiest storylines to do on screen because it’s a motive often entwined with male ego and more specifically alpha male ego. It has to be carefully handled to overcome the alienating aspects of a lead with the worst traits of hyper-masculinity like unrelenting competitiveness, rampant narcissism, unabashed greed, dismissiveness and an inflated sense of self-entitlement.
Luckily the film won’t get more sympathetic an audience for it than the franchise’s fans. The series has always been one built on appealing to male aspiration, daddy issues and strength of character rendered through physicality – all whilst wearing its heart on its sleeve. It’s shamelessly pandering, endearingly square, and not nearly as unsophisticated or dumb as it pretends to be, and we love it for that.
Thus the main plot of “Creed II” goes for an angle that has worked well in the past for both this franchise and for others, humility, as nothing is more challenging to a stoic male than a moment of genuine emotional vulnerability – especially with other men. From “Thor” to “Cars,” the formula follows a prideful hero who takes a fall, wallows in self-pity, reflects and (expediently) learns an emotional truth, and returns to glory.
The sequel follows that template to the letter, complete with a pretty great come back montage featuring lots of jogging and weightlifting and bag punching in the Mexican desert complete with plenty of slo-mo screams and no sign of any scorpions or jock itch.
Yet this is where it also stumbles right out of the gate. To achieve that arc they start out by making Adonis far less likeable from the get-go. Conceited, arrogant, and more easily triggered than a five-year-old school bully, his compulsion to prove himself not just a man, not just world champ, but THE world champ – even at significant emotional cost to everyone around him – isn’t questioned let alone treated for the borderline mental illness it is.
The writing often feels muddled here. Split between the inevitable training montages and readying for boxing match set pieces to come, and Creed’s growing personal relationship with Bianca, there are some scenes that shine with genuine emotional warmth and thrills while others feel decidedly forced and even downright clunky. This can be seen in Rocky and Bianca’s involvement which feels less organic and more to service and validate Creed’s character choices as opposed to being fully fleshed out co-leads facing their own issues of mortality and uncertain futures like in the first.
Full marks for Michael B. Jordan who commits his all to this unappealing storyline for Adonis. Even more muscular and yet far more defined than he was in the first film, he believably holds his own against his giant of an opponent in the ring. He’s an engagingly watchable lead even when you find yourself thinking his character is either a fool or a self-absorbed prick. Stallone still knows how to have his gruff but non-curmudgeonly old man character espouse welcome life mantras at just the right time, but his falling out with Adonis feels insincere at best and the onscreen reunion with the older Drago is strangely inert.
Tessa Thompson slays her part as per usual, especially in a truly touching scene involving a child’s post-birth test, but her role is confined along much more rigid ‘love interest’ lines. Regularly referred to as ‘my woman’, she at least has a dream of her own but always demurs to his wants, desires and demands whilst being expected to ignore her own which she wilfully does at almost every turn. Don’t get me started on an incompetent babysitting sequence that feels like a bad 80s comedy.
In spite of the clumsy storyline and more pedestrian approach overall, the shock of “Creed II” is that it all still works so well. Kramer Morgenthau’s camera work is always clear and never loses the geography of a scene, whilst really shining in some of the quieter moments outside of the ring. Pacing is strong throughout and the energy swells just right (complete with classic ‘Rocky’ musical cues) in the climactic fight, but the storylines feel hastily wrapped up in a bow at the end as opposed to organically flowing to a natural conclusion.
The cycling back to “Rocky IV” and the obvious way to use it as a launchpad to explore issues of legacy and fatherhood is understandable and a commendable aim, and the film gets most of the way there. Even so, what could’ve been a bigger knockout than the first ends up feeling more like a middle of the pack entry in the series overall, a story of thwarted greatness. The film still has plenty of its own pleasures however and will certainly appeal to the fans and the faithful, it just needs to sort out now whether the next one still wants to dwell in the past or embrace its own youthful energy and forge its own legacy.