When Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan unveiled Creed, the seventh sequel to the nearly four decade-old Rocky franchise in 2015, no one could’ve anticipated just how successful it would be. Born in the midst of Hollywood’s great reboot boom, you couldn’t help but wonder how much of the film’s conception was artistic necessity, and how much was studio cynicism drudging up another icon of American cinema and dusting them off for a shameless bid of nostalgia-driven cash grabbing. Whatever the reasons, Creed was an astonishing triumph that introduced the Rocky Balboa legend to a new generation, launched Coogler and Jordan onto Hollywood’s A-List, and scored Sylvester Stallone his first Oscar nomination since 1978 (for the original Rocky). By all measures, Creed succeeded beyond the wildest of imaginations.
With that level of success, of course they would make a sequel; whether or not we needed one is another point entirely. Creed left the door open for additional story to tell, but for a franchise as sequel-prone as Rocky, it might’ve been nice to leave something to our imagination for once. To find justification for its existence, director Steven Caple Jr. (taking the helm from Coogler) and returning screenwriter Stallone looked back to 1985’s Rocky IV, the Cold War allegory that saw Apollo Creed killed in his match against Ivan Drago, for inspiration. Creed II asks: what would happen if Drago, seething with humiliation and rage after Rocky avenged Creed Sr.’s death thirty years ago, had his own son who could restore his honor and that of Russian boxing, all with one brutal punch?
The answer is pretty much what you would expect if you’re familiar with the events of Rocky IV, or Creed for that matter. In the three decades since Ivan Drago’s (Dolph Lundgren) defeat in Moscow, his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is making a name for himself in the world of Ukrainian boxing, with a brutal technique and even more brutal coaching from his emotionally distant father. Meanwhile, Adonis Creed (Jordan) is on top of the world in every respect: he becomes the heavyweight champion of the world, he gets engaged to Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and Rocky (Stallone) is cancer-free and still coaching him. Of course, all of this success is upended by Viktor, who, egged on by his father and a shifty promoter, challenges him to a fight. Against all reasonable advice from all of his loved ones, Adonis takes the fight, with decidedly not-good results. His confidence and conviction shaken, Adonis is left grappling with the threat of his Russian counterpart and the legacy he wants to leave behind, professionally and personally. Eventually, he’s able to pull himself together in time for a decisive re-match in Russia.
Rehashing the Creed-Drago conflict is a smart, albeit inevitable choice. As Creed did before, Caple Jr and Stallone are able to find poignancy in the past. Creed II, at its best, explores the empowering and destructive impact of legacy through the eyes of its two young fighters. Caple Jr’s direction works best outside the ring, where can tap into the cast’s palpable chemistry and their characters’ rich histories to craft moments that feel lived-in and genuine. Whether capturing Creed awkwardly pacing around his hotel room figuring out how he wants to propose, or Creed and Rocky at odds over taking Drago’s challenge, Caple Jr demonstrates an intimate understanding of these characters and their dynamics, and does a great job building real emotional stakes. The film does even more interesting work on behalf of Viktor Drago, Creed’s nemesis by proxy. The film obviously favors its namesake, but it resists casting the younger Drago as a one-note adversary in favor of more nuanced glimpses of conflict, frustration and even yearning. It’s a shame that Creed and Drago, two characters with a complicated shared past and even messier motivations for their animosity, don’t share any scenes outside the ring, if only to add some much-needed unpredictability to the conflict.
Predictability is a key weak spot for Creed II. Stallone’s script borrows heavily from Rocky IV, down to the location of the final bout, which leaves little room for genuine surprises. If you’re familiar with the Creed mythology, or any sports film ever, then the outcomes of the film’s central plot are easy to glean. It robs the film of some of its propulsive tension, a problem exacerbated by the first half’s disjointed flow and surprisingly weak boxing scenes. Caple Jr’s rendering of Creed’s championship fight and his first bout with Drago are noticeably lacking in the kinetic energy you would expect from a boxing film, feeling almost perfunctory. He does course-correct by the film’s final third, capturing the exhilarating, fist-pump spirit in a relentless pummel of a climax that is as intense as any Rocky-related entry before it. It’s a final act that makes the rough journey ultimately worth it.
Every principal character from Creed returns for Creed II, and once again, it is an embarrassment of talented riches which Caple Jr doesn’t waste. As the heavyweight champion with the most to lose, Michael B. Jordan is given broader strokes to play this time around, and he handles the complexities well. While his physicality is impressive, he shines brightest in the character work that Caple Jr excels in, making a solid case for himself as a more-straightforward romantic and dramatic lead. Stallone once again captures Rocky’s world-weary but indomitable spirit with quiet strength; the looks of fear, determination and horror on his face watching Creed and Drago’s first fight may be some of his most affecting work. Tessa Thompson, who sees an expanded role as she ponders her future in relation to her progressive hearing loss, is grace under pressure personified. Even Lundgren turns in strong work, expanding Drago Sr. beyond steroid rage with shades of bitter disappointment and fear.
Creed II doesn’t improve upon Ryan Coogler’s original; it would’ve been a near-miracle if it had. It does offer an enjoyable and affecting addition to the Rocky franchise that, while not a necessity, justifies its existence. Sylvester Stallone should be proud that the world he created four decades ago has remained relevant and resonant for so long. That satisfaction should be enough to let Creed II end the franchise on a relatively high note and close the book on Rocky Balboa. We don’t need a Creed III, or Creed IV, or dear merciful God, a Creed V.