Review: Creed II

Though Creed writer-director Ryan Coogler has moved on, he left Creed 2 in capable hands. This time, relative newcomer Steven Caple Jr. directs a script written by franchise and role originator Sylvester Stallone with the help of Juel Taylor. Together, they create a worthy follow-up. Caple Jr. turns out to be a lot like Coogler, showing effortless ability to direct a compelling story with his first big movie. Two young directors proving themselves, by telling the story of a young man who does the same. By now we know Coogler is the real deal, and time will tell if the same will prove true for Caple Jr.

While a great sequel, Creed 2 can’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor. Stallone’s a capable writer but also has a tendency to lean on the old hits. Creed 2 leans a little too heavily on the Rocky formula, arriving like a child born from two parents: Creed and Rocky IV. That film is often pointed to as the entry where the franchise fully lost its way but it might surprise Rocky buffs how well the baggage of IV is dispensed with.

Like its titular character, Creed 2 has to prove that this branch of the Rocky franchise isn’t a fluke. Three years after the events of the original film, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) must defend his new belt and fragile legacy against the ghosts of his past, the fiercest of which being the way his father died. To redeem himself for his own failures, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) re-emerges with a fight that Jordan can’t deny. The result is apolitical and deeply personal, flipping Rocky IV’s excess on its head. There’s a lot of intentional metatext here, with both Adonis’s storyline and the existence of the film in dialogue.

Adonis is still the same guy: a little dorky, nervous about success, and prone to self-absorption. It’s a credit to Jordan and the writers that he remains likable even when he’s at his most volatile. A big help is the larger focus on Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is one of the best love interest/female leads in a long and problematic history of macho tough guy movies with little for the women to do. Bianca is indelibly her own person with both the character as written, and the vibrance in Thompson’s performance allowing her to help Adonis see past himself and be a guy the audience can root for. As actors, they have great chemistry which tends to spill out into their performance. Stallone in particular is better than he’s been in decades, especially when he shares the frame with Jordan and Thompson. Even with the formulaic structure of the story, it’s these characters and their interactions that make the film work and fans of Creed will not be surprised.

The surprise here is the more subtle story of Ivan Drago and his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu). A different approach might have had Viktor and Adonis becoming unlikely friends, the way Rocky and Apollo did. What we get instead is a more separate but mirrored story. Like their counterparts, Viktor and Ivan are gripped with cycles of shame and tragedy that threaten to consume them. Lundgren is great in this role, getting one of the best in a film full of emotionally resonant moments. Munteanu has a little less to do, but sells Viktor’s vulnerability and pain in furtive, boyish expressions. One of Rocky’s many wise sayings is that it’s yourself that you get in the ring with. The Dragos tell that story in an understated way that is every bit as effective as the more emotive Creed side. They may be the films antagonists, but they aren’t villains.

The Rocky films have always mixed this kind of human drama with mythic, larger than life struggles in the boxing ring. The Creed entries are more restrained but they tackle weightier issues with authenticity. Creed 2 explores relationships and challenges filtered through a masculine lens. The strongest example in the film is how the subtext hinges on shame and fear, powerful emotions that can embitter us if we don’t seek support from others. Creed 2 offers a great message for men, showing that isn’t just about being tough and not giving up, but about being strong enough to ask for help and take it when it’s offered. In other ways, the Creed entries are stories about fathers and sons, and the marks left by things gone wrong. Hope for reconciliation and healing might seem like overly sentimental themes, but the Rocky films have always been about heart.

These elements churn under the surface of Creed 2, but the film never becomes grim or dour. Sentiment can also be romantic, allowing for quite a bit of cheese and earning it by presenting that authentic drama around those moments. Sometimes it makes sense to go big and unlike the first Creed, this time some of that bigness and pageantry return. For example, Bianca sings Adonis’s entrance music at his big fight. It’s pure cheddar in one way, but so thematically on point and supported by the drama that it’s perfect for the film.

The Rocky films have chugged along reliably while continually reinventing itself. Post-modern re-imagining has its place, but it seems the Creed entries will remain focused on respecting the history and tradition of the franchise. The formula might be something we’ve seen before but it’s undeniable that it can still work when the story is well told. Callbacks and casting choices help the creative team remind us why we care about Rocky’s world in the first place. To the right audience, this is every bit as satisfying as the inter-textual references of an MCU film.

Creed 2 solidifies what Creed began, reminding us that merging over the top mythology with authentic drama is a potent combination. Channeling real problems into a universe where angsty men can box their way to love, forgiveness, acceptance, or even the end of the Cold War might seem silly, but it’s also inspiring.