The first line spoke in “Creed II” is “You got this.” Its uttered to Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan) by his girlfriend, Bianca (played by Tessa Thompson) before a boxing match and the statement pretty much sums up the movie: overly familiar but confident.
While Creed is enjoying his sudden fame and a newly formed family, an old, personal foe begins to hound him: Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren), the disgraced Russian boxer who murdered Creed’s father in the ring back in 1985. Viktor, Drago’s son (played by an imposing Florian Munteanu), is a fierce opponent, hoping to exact his father’s revenge and destroy the tortured legacy of their last name. Luckily, Creed has Bianca’s unbreakable will (Thompson is, once again, luminous in the role) and the fatherly mentorship of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who is rattled by the return of his Cold War-era enemy.
Although this has been deemed “Creed II,” a better title would have been “Creed Vs. Drago,” or, let’s just be honest, “Rocky VIII.” The latter is nothing to be ashamed of, as this franchise is still finding new life and excitement. Yes, there’s no longer any surprise to how the big match turns out, though it’s not the only sequence here that cribs from the past.
There’s a training montage set in a fierce location, in which Creed must battle the elements (“Rocky IV”). We’re introduced to the colorful promoter of Creed’s opponent, who has a Don King-like manner (“Rocky V”). Creed goes through life changes and gets domestic (“Rocky II”), while Balboa still speaks to his deceased wife in the cemetery (“Rocky VI-VII”). A big match gets a Vegas-worthy opener and has a shockingly violent outcome (“Rocky IV”), our hero is warned not to fight a big, bad Russian (“Rocky IV,” again) and old catch phrases like “Go For It” (“Rocky V”) and “Yo!” (Rocky I-VIII”) are dusted off.
Its saying something that the story still draws dramatic power from the lingering absence of Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. Yet, the lack of writer/director Ryan Coogler , who helmed the prior film, haunts this far more. Against all odds, the 2015 “Creed” was an outstanding, dramatically urgent “Rocky” follow-up that also stands as one of the best boxing movies ever made. While a hard act to follow, newcomer director Steve Caple Jr. and screenwriter Stallone, in the midst of busily stirring the formula, find worthy angles to explore.
A huge asset is Lundgren, whose return to the character of Drago isn’t ham-fisted. Never lauded before for his acting abilities, Lundgren makes Drago somehow scarier and more real than before. He’s excellent, and so is Jordan, who has more to work with this time. While the prior installment was really a vehicle for Stallone to add even more pathos and layers to his signature character, Sly takes a step back and allows Jordan to drive the story. Of course, as the screenwriter, Stallone makes sure the characters are always discussing Balboa when he isn’t on screen (!).
An opportunity is missed in not fully addressing post-USSR politics and how they affect Drago and his kin. Nevertheless, the scenes of Ivan and his son training in the Ukraine are compelling. So are the surprise cameo appearances from prior installments. If “Creed” was a stand-alone film for newcomers and the faithful, “Creed II” is a proper follow up but more attuned to the “Rocky” saga and the expectations of sequels. Too much of the first act is connect the dots, this-happened-so-this-must-happen-next screenwriting. Only in the second act does the film regain its footing and allow the characters time to breathe and develop.
Aside from the stylish, thrilling climactic match, there’s no sense of the dynamic filmmaking that marked the previous film. If “Creed” was patient in its storytelling and poetic in its filmmaking, then “Creed II” is Sequel 101. Yet, the formula still works. The best scenes in “Creed II” are rich in emotion and enough to rouse audiences to the edge of their seats. These films, even the more downbeat episodes, are about celebrating personal reinvention and overcoming the obstacles before us. The Rocky series remains a feel-great movie experience.
-originally published in Maui Time Weekly