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It’s a strange thing to say about a film drawing from a near half-century old franchise, but oh how Ryan Coogler’s Creed felt like a breath of fresh air when it came out in 2015. It may fit the modern blockbuster mould of relying on a beloved and proven IP but here was a mass-market film that was not superhero orientated yet wasn’t shy to lean hard on hollywoodisms to make a great contemporary tearjerker.
The best Rocky film since the 1976 original, Creed seemed happy to tell a simple story about a broken young man trying to prove himself worthy of a legacy he didn’t ask for and it was heart breaking. Bill Conti’s score hadn’t soared like this since the 70’s, Stallone’s slurs felt like Tzu Zu truths and the emotional highs made every punch feel like they were pulverising you in the gut. This is all without even mentioning Michael B. Jordan’s superb central performance that anchored everything around him.
Suffice to say, Creed II has something of an uphill battle from the off. In the sequel’s predecessor, Adonis Creed had what felt like a complete and near-perfect arc that culminated in the no-dry-eye guarantee, “prove I’m not a mistake” climax. Sure you could always put him in more bouts, but the first movie made it clear by the end that Adonis had found a sense of self-worth on his terms and had overcome the feeling of abandonment he garnered from growing up fatherless.
It was always unlikely that this one was going to match the standard of what came before it and well…it doesn’t. Forty years ago, Rocky II had a similar problem. At the very least, Creed II honours the franchise’s legacy in that there is a near identical drop in quality from the first universally praised effort to the rather decent follow up. It should be stressed that this all could have been a lot worse so be thankful for that but let’s just say it’s fitting that the director’s last name almost sounds like ‘capable’.
Creed II’s answer to keeping things fresh is to up the stakes and fan service. Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the human Soviet bloc(k) responsible for the death of Adonis’ father Apollo in Rocky IV, returns to whet the appetites for those yearning for a nostalgia kick. Retired and still licking his wounds from losing to Rocky Balboa decades earlier, Drago is now living modestly back in Ukraine and coaching his aspiring son and boxer Viktor (an impossibly enormous Florian Munteanu). It’s not long before a unscrupulous boxing promoter emerges from the woodwork to set up the lucrative fight of the century.
One thing that Creed II widely eschews is the delaying of the inevitable. It doesn’t take long for Adonis to dispose of the current heavyweight champion so he can take the crown and the story can start proper. This time out however there isn’t the advantage of it being a fresh spin on an old classic. The biggest problem here is the way the mechanics of the Rocky formula suddenly feel a lot more visible then they did three years ago. Stallone is back as back as Balboa/Creed’s coach but his mini-monologues of blue collar wisdom now tire the listener as oppose to inspire and the infamous, endless training montages feel like more excuses for toilet breaks than anything else. Also, for the love of God, there really needs to be some kind of embargo on Rocky characters visiting gravestones.
As for the underused Drago family, director Steven Caple Jr. can’t really decide what to do with them. We’re not really sure if the father and son duo are meant to come off as cold, cartoonish, machine-like villains feeling nothing only pain or sympathetic figures suffering from the trauma of the Soviet collapse. The latter may be the case but the film doesn’t really give the two enough room to breathe. Limited screen time hampers subplots involving a mother who walked out on them and the Russian state’s attempts to take credit for Viktor successes. The two get an admittedly touching final moment together buts it’s hard to buy when Viktor is given all the depth of the muscle-bound 80s action figure he somehow looks like.
For better and for worse, this is really Adonis’ story again. Jordan is still engaging as ever and he and Tessa Thompson, who plays Creed’s fiancé Bianco, continue to share the same palpable chemistry we saw in the first movie. The emotional beats of Adonis’s mental and physical recovery after a halfway setback can on occasion pull at the heartstrings. The continuation of his life story is all well-acted and well-written, but not all that necessary. It’s like late season lull in a good tv show, where we’re watching a character learn lessons he’s already learned.
Creed II is solid and mostly satisfying. It’s like a simulacrum of good Ryan Coogler film, a carbon copy that’s just not quite there. There are no singular standout moments like the blistering one take boxing scene from the first one but it’s a steady ride of popcorn escapism. The final match may be an over the top brawl that would kill any man after five minutes, but the Rocky theme will still raise hairs when it booms over the action The formula has lasted over 40 years for a reason.
It’s as if Caple Jr. has made a nice dish after following Coogler’s recipe to a tee. It’s hard to complain too much but we all know the guy who wrote the cookbook can make it better.