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Creed II

Here’s a classic Hollywood problem: A movie comes from right the fuck outta nowhere to be a crowd-pumping, critic-pleasing, box-office-smashing, Oscar-courting chunk of awesome; and now somebody has to make a sequel. Trouble is, how do you craft a follow-up to a movie that clearly wasn’t built for a sequel, and frankly had no business being as good as it was in the first place?

In the case of Creed II, the filmmakers started by letting Ryan Coogler fly the coop, recruiting debut director Steven Caple Jr. and a different suite of writers (namely Cheo Hodari Coker, Sascha Penn, and Juel Taylor) to bring in some new blood. Though of course Sylvester Stallone stayed on as one of the writers. The second step was to lean heavy into the nostalgia angle, bringing in Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his most iconic role) to pit his own son (Victor, played by Florian Munteanu) against the younger Creed. They even brought in Brigitte Nielsen to reprise her role as Ivan’s erstwhile wife. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To start with, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, in what’s already become his signature role) is now the heavyweight world champion. What’s more, he’s just proposed to his girlfriend (Bianca, played once again by Tessa Thompson) right when her music career is taking off and just before she gets pregnant. (The trailers already gave that part away, so I’m not counting it as a spoiler.)

On the one hand, all of this seems counter-intuitive. The Rocky films are underdog stories, after all, and it’s hard for the protagonist to be an underdog when he’s got everything. But then there’s the flip-side to having everything: Our protagonist has everything to lose. Plus, when Creed is against an opponent who outclasses him, he’s still an underdog.

This brings us to Drago and son. Turns out that when Ivan took his high-profile loss against Rocky all those years ago, he became a social pariah. His wife left him, his country abandoned him, his career was over, and so on. As a direct result, his son was shaped into an instrument of revenge. He’s angry at the world, born into a world that hated him back, raised so that fighting is all he knows and does. Victor is a monster, a bona fide psychopath who cares about absolutely nothing except winning the world heavyweight title, destroying everything Rocky cares about, and redeeming the Drago name.

All the while, the world is watching to see the blood feud of Creed vs. Drago: The Next Generation. Everyone is waiting to see if history repeats itself or if it will be rewritten. Will Creed keep his title as the heavyweight champion of the world? Will his daughter (who might be born deaf, by the way) have to grow up with a dead or crippled father? Will Rocky have the guts to get in Creed’s corner, knowing that he might have to watch two generations of Creeds die on his watch? Will the Dragos… um…

Yeah, here we start to get into problems.

Look, there’s no getting around the fact that Ivan Drago was never really meant to be anything more than a metaphor. He was the cold, impersonal, overpowering strength of the Soviet Union, nothing more or less. There’s a reason his “I must break you” line is so iconic — he only had nine lines of dialogue in the whole movie! That’s a perilously thin foundation to build a character on, never mind two. So naturally, when the filmmakers try to build on the two Dragos, it only serves to demonstrate how hollow these characters are, especially in contrast with the more developed and three-dimensional characters in Creed’s corner.

To wit: If Creed wins — hell, even if he survives — it further proves that he is more than his father, having conquered and outlasted something that killed Apollo Creed. If Drago wins… then what? Seriously, Victor strikes me as someone who couldn’t function unless he thinks he’s the underdog. I almost wish he had gotten the heavyweight title, just to see if he had any idea what to do with it.

As for Adonis Creed himself… well, there’s really nothing here you don’t already know. He’s still a walking caseload of daddy issues, still trying to find his own way forward in the shadow of his father’s legacy, still afraid of dying on the mat like his father did. The key difference, of course, is that while Apollo Creed’s death was a heavy shroud hung over the entirety of Creed, it hangs even heavier on the sequel. This is Adonis confronting his father’s demise head-on, in every conceivable way, as everyone in the world (meaning Rocky, the Dragos, the sports commentators, the audience, EVERYONE) makes every possible comparison between Adonis fighting Victor and Apollo fighting the man who would eventually kill him.

There’s some other stuff going on, but none of it’s terribly relevant. There’s a useless recurring subplot in which Rocky tries to reconnect with his son (Milo Ventimiglia, reprising his role from earlier in the series). Russell Hornsby shows up as a boxing promoter, but the guy is wasting his charisma on this totally thankless and useless role. Ditto for Phylicia Rashad, far and away better than the material she’s given as Adonis’ mother. The stuff with Adonis’ new daughter is sweet, but ultimately serves no purpose aside from raising the stakes. 

That’s really what it comes down to with this movie: raising the stakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful for the movie to have such palpable life-or-death consequences for everything that happens, and it’s good that the dramatic tension is so much more thick than it was in the prequel. It also helps that the boxing sequences are all aces, with visceral sound design, expert use of slo-mo, and masterful storytelling through action. Hell, even when the scene is of two characters talking, the filmmakers use just enough hand-held camera to keep things interesting without getting distracting.

But aside from these shallow improvements and superficial differences, there’s really not much new here. When you get right down to it, Adonis is still trying to be the greatest boxer he possibly can be while the rest of the world keeps pushing him into his father’s shadow, and Adonis himself has to decide if he’s okay with that. Rocky still has to figure out if he should give in to old age and retire quietly, or if he still has any measure of gas left in the tank. So their personal insecurities cost Adonis a fight, the two of them spend the rest of the second act trying to get back up until they’re ready for Rocky to help Adonis through the training montages, you know the drill. All of this is rehashed from the first movie, and from most of the franchise as a whole. It certainly doesn’t help that the Dragos have nothing significant to contribute, and all of Bianca’s character developments only serve to build on Adonis. That said, Tessa Thompson is still a powerhouse, capable of delivering a highly memorable female lead in a heavily male-centric movie and franchise.

I want to be clear in stating that Creed is a good movie. It’s competently made, the performances are all solid, the boxing scenes are great fun, and the franchise’s underlying themes are still as potent and timeless as ever. There’s really nothing in here we haven’t seen before, aside from the higher stakes, but that’s enough to make a huge difference in terms of dramatic tension and character development.

Stallone announced recently that he’s retiring the Rocky character, so there’s definitely a chance that big changes could come with the third movie. I’m all for it. So far, this whole franchise has been about Adonis Creed learning how to bury his father and find his own way forward; and the sooner he finally does that, the better off we’ll all be.

You won’t be missing anything if you wait for home video, but if you can catch it on the big screen for a discount or a second-run ticket, go for it.

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