In 2015, Ryan Coogler’s Creed—a Rocky spinoff starring Michael B. Jordan as the son of famous Rocky opponent Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)—was a surprise box office hit. Wedged between Coogler’s small debut film, Fruitvale Station (2013), and the huge success of this year's Black Panther, Creed was respectably mid-budget. The film sees Adonis follow the path of his father into pro boxing, with the help of trusty trainer Sylvester Stallone. Creed II is a continuation in the mood of excitement and triumphalism of the prior film, directed this time by the lesser-known Steven Caple Jr.
This sequel has more than a fair helping of dynamic thrills and compelling drama to round out what is otherwise a fairly average story. Michael B. Jordan returns as the volatile and restless as Adonis, now starting a new life on the West Coast with his expectant girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and having just won his heavyweight title. But rather than resting on his laurels, he is jolted into action by the presentation of a new/old threat: Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan from Rocky IV (1985), the man who killed his father in the ring. Adonis’ willingness to fight Viktor is undercut by the anxieties of reopening old wounds, and a rift forms between trainer Rocky (Stallone) and his fighter over the potential challenge. Predictability and convention have a place to play in Caple Jr.’s film, but if audiences are willing to abide that, there is plenty of old-fashioned fun to be had, too.
Dolph Lundgren’s Übermensch Ivan Drago is one of the most memorable villains of 1980s cinema, with his monosyllabic menace and towering physical perfectio. Happily, Lundgren returns here with Drago's equally dog-on-a-chain style son, played by Florian Munteanu. The two make a physically intimidating and dead-eyed pair, and it’s a thrill to see Lundgren return to play opposite Stallone after decades have passed. As Adonis faces his opponent once, and then again for a rematch, the question becomes not only one of his physical safety but of how far he is willing to go on the basis of pride. As in Rocky IV, he eventually must travel all the way to Russia to meet a challenge that seems fated. Meanwhile, his journey to new fatherhood plays a surprisingly central role in the film, forcing him and Bianca to reconsider the dangers of pugilism.
Themes around familial love, loyalty, and redemption are underlined and highlighted and bolded out in Creed II, making for some seriously clunky and occasionally frustrating moments. When Rocky wheels himself out to dispense with some creaky life advice for the third or fourth time in the film, it can border on comedic. The script’s dialogue, written by four different people, is a weak spot in a film that relies on some expository content. But Creed II does manage to operate on fluidly visual terms, too. The boxing sequences are thrilling and stylish, though neither compare to the long-take approach Ryan Coogler took in the original film.
Ultimately though, Creed II is as much a male weepie or old-school melodrama as it is a boxing movie, and this is actually where it succeeds best. Jordan regards his mentor with wells of angry tears in those big brown eyes; and Stallone, with his craggy-faced familiarity, looks back in sullen worry. If the romance between Bianca and Donnie is touching, here is the real love story of the film. Creed and Rocky are bonded by history, family ties, shared tragedy, and a loss of father and son respectively: that’s more than any woman can compete against. In fact, much of the third act of the film relies on Rocky’s temporary absence from the story and the punishing toll it takes on a troubled Adonis.
These kinds of depictions of tender heterosexual masculinity are surprisingly few and far between, certainly not in sports fare. This particular brand of man is the kind I’d like to see more of in mainstream cinema: one where tender affection for one another softens its depiction of otherwise hard-bodied, tough machismo. Often the hardest fighters are family men with a sentimental streak, and the fact that the film leans into this idea is one of its biggest successes.
What the film may lack in surprises it does deliver on in subtext. The mere fact of Adonis Creed circa 2015 was a clever and fertile swap-around of Rocky’s traditionally white working-class milieu. Race has traditionally been a point of contention in the boxing movie, and Hollywood has mostly avoided a topic which is so central to the real sport. While Apollo was a supporting character previously, his son is a bonafide star in Michael B. Jordan.
Creed II is a thoroughly gratifying effort with perhaps more interesting overtones and echoes than the perfunctory script allows for, particularly on the topics of male tenderness and race. Yet it also functions as an utterly enjoyable genre movie, if not with the terse realism of its predecessor.