If there’s one franchise that I am utterly surprised that it is still ongoing at this point, it is the franchise of Rocky Balboa by Sylvester Stallone. Proving you can’t keep a fighter down (or you can’t stop beating a dead horse), writer/director Ryan Coogler came up with the idea to reinvigorate the franchise without any need of retconning nor rebooting or starting any spin-offs.
Coogler came up with the first Creed film; a fantastic piece of work that not only made the case of finishing the arc of the Rocky franchise but it also started a new franchise of its own, with then-rising stars Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson. The film was so good, Stallone got nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.
Now we have the sequel, Creed 2. And with all the talk about sequels being inferior to the original and so on, it’s hard not to have tempered expectations for this film, but with the cast returning, Coogler returning as producer and rising director Steven Caple Jr. at the helm, it could be a knockout just like its predecessor. Does it deliver a knockout punch?
During the events of Rocky IV in 1985, Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) killed former U.S. champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in a tragic match that stunned the world. Now in the present days, against the wishes of trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Apollo’s son Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) accepts a challenge from Drago’s son (Florian Munteanu), another dangerous fighter.
Under the guidance from Rocky and loving support from his musician-girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis trains for the showdown of his life. Now, Johnson and Balboa must confront their shared legacy as the past comes back to haunt each man.
If that synopsis sounded predictable to you, that is because it really is. And that is the main issue with Creed 2 which makes it inferior to the first film. But like a line of dialogue spoken in The Matrix, “there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”, and that makes all the difference.
Director Steven Caple Jr. thankfully doesn’t resort to imitating his predecessor director Ryan Coogler, but merely use his progress as a stepping stone for his own ideas. And while he does a capable job for a big project, considering that it is only his second feature-length film, he does struggle a bit at trying to keep all the plates spinning, as the script (credited to four writers) simply has too many ideas on the table and cannot fully expand them all well enough to truly add to the narrative.
The subplot about Rocky about his hesitation to communicate with his remaining family could have been left on the cutting room floor as it feels like an afterthought at times, but it does convey an emotional throughline in the film, which is about the relationships between fathers and sons, and it does give the film some dramatic punch. It’s just a shame that the film is quite blatant in its approach at times, especially with the repetitive speeches and foreshadowing in its key moments. In addition, Adonis’ character arc throughout the film could have been examined more thoroughly to waive off predictability if Caple Jr. had explored how the consequences of the character’s actions due to his anger and rage.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any surprises. The main one being the relationship between Ivan Drago and his son Viktor. While they are set up as antagonists, the two share a surprisingly poignant father-and-son relationship. It serves as an effective underdog component to the film as well as a compelling contrast to Adonis’ relationship with his loved ones and both Lundgren and Munteanu make the most of their roles, even with limited dialogue.
The other surprise is how it mines its drama from the theme of emotional solitude, particularly with the use of boxing as the backdrop. Despite all the support that Adonis’ has, in the end it is him alone that can get himself out of the rut he put himself in and director Caple Jr. sincerely conveys that on screen. The same goes for the touching relationship between Adonis and Bianca, in which they take it to the next level and the paths and obstacles they go through. It certainly helps that the natural, intimate chemistry Thompson and Jordan share is still intact from the first film.
What Creed 2 lacks in innovation, it makes up for in conviction and the cast are all great in their roles once again. Jordan portrays the conflicting emotions that his character goes through smoothly and convinces when he reaches the epiphany that leads to the third act, he strikes the right note incredibly well. Stallone has less to do but he still makes the most of his smaller role by being amusingly outspoken and naive, even if his share of dialogue mostly consists of tired, sentimental cliches. The rest of the cast are all giving it their all but the bond between Jordan and Stallone is still the highlight of the film.
And the expected moments in any Rocky film are still very effective, whether its the fight scenes or the extensive montages. In the case of the fight scenes, they may not be shot in the smooth manner like the first film (through Maryse Alberti‘s cinematography), but the editing by Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider and Paul Harb, the sound design and especially Ludwig Gorransson‘s score give the scenes a powerful, visceral and effective feel, even if the cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau lacks the visual effectiveness of Alberti’s work. Gorransson’s contribution in particular to the film lends a divine Colloseum, battle-charge feel to the fight scenes as well as a effectively operatic charge to the drama.
Overall, Creed 2 may not be the true knockout the first Creed film was, but as far as sequels go (and as Rocky sequels go), it still packs one hell of a punch. Thanks to the commitment of the returning cast, the sincere faithfulness to the franchise, its blunt-force dramatic approach and the intense boxing scenes, Creed 2 is a great sequel that’s worth running out to watch.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Creed II is in cinemas nationally now.