It was inevitable that a sequel to Creed—Ryan Cooglers gangbusters sports drama, which was the seventh film in the Rocky franchise—would fall short of the original, unless it was directed by Coogler himself. That was the lesson of Creed. As one of the few recent American popcorn movies to be directed with any spark of originality, it was all but guaranteed to go down as a rare animal. Not even Cooglers follow-up, Black Panther, is as good.
From the outset, you had to know that what Coogler accomplished—breathing vital signs and a pulse into a film franchise thatd been D.O.A. for years—couldnt be reproduced. The deck was stacked tall against any follow-up; even if Creed were nothing more than a trio of fantastic boxing scenes, those scenes, in their camera-swinging, rigorous, tactile beauty, would still make for one of the most satisfying movies in recent memory. Creed was proof that style still has a place in the mainstream—a lesson that many American movies, too busy trying to meet the low bar set by umpteen boring Avengers sequels, have already quickly forgotten.
None of that quite explains why Steven Caple Jr.s Creed II, which was written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, is such a bland affair. But it does clarify what made Cooglers film so distinctive in the first place. Where Cooglers movie runs hot, Caples runs warm; where Coogler dwells, steeping every scene in a sense of shared history and a love of Philadelphia, Caple takes for granted that this ground has already been sowed.
Maybe so. But that was just as true for Creed, which had six prior Rocky movies to contend with and managed, nevertheless, to make it all feel new again—even as it satisfied the familiar beats. The Rocky franchise is nothing if not redundant, or rather, full of reverberations, past stories just waiting to be mined by some later sequel. Creed II doesnt quite make a meal of the opportunity.
But the pure drama of it does resonate. This is, as ever, a father-and-son story. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Rocky are family, by this point, and there is of course Creeds real family: the ghost of his dead father, Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring (in Rocky IV) by the Soviet muscleman Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). In this film, Drago is back—and like Apollo, hes got an heir.
You can see where this is going. The movie quickly becomes a race toward a historic Drago-Creed rematch, by way of their angry sons. Rocky is, of course, the man in the middle. He could have prevented the death of Creeds father by calling the fight that got him killed—but he didnt, and he regrets it. He also, as fans of the franchise remember, avenged Apollos death by defeating Drago so badly that the Soviets reputation was destroyed. Drago and his family lost everything. Viktor is the seed of that loss—and he carries the brunt of all the resulting anger. A win for him is vengeance for his father.
Unexpectedly, Viktor Drago is one of the best things in the movie. It isnt a matter of performance, per se, though the German-Romanian Florian Munteanu, a professional boxer, makes for a believably chaotic heavy. And as hes easily a head and change taller that Michael B. Jordan, his mere appearance in the film quickly gives it the dimensions of a classic David and Goliath story—even as the film largely snuffs out the excitement of that mythology.
The real juice is in the incisive shots of Viktors face. In a movie that constantly makes you wonder who Viktor is fighting this battle for—himself? His father?—close-ups at decisive moments communicate that he, too, is re-evaluating the answer to that question. Moments like this remind us how great a movie can be when it makes you do the wondering.
So much of Creed II, alas, is spent doing the opposite—double-underlining emotions, overplaying stale ideas. Strong turns from Tessa Thompson, as Creeds partner, Bianca, and Phylicia Rashad as his mother, Mary Anne, cant mitigate how little there is for these women to explore or reveal. Its all just sort of there: rote, obvious, tamped-down by predictability.
The same goes for Jordan and Stallone, who reprise their roles with good effort but not much in the way of discovery. So many of the scenes here—trips to Stallones restaurant, to Creeds childhood home, to cheesesteaks in Philly—are rehashes of a world we already know. But rather than returning with open arms or a sense of grace or nostalgia, the movie ambles into each beat with the brevity and predictability of a film thats only got fan service on its mind. Its strange to see that what looked, as of Creed, like a wonderfully recharged franchise revival has already settled back into the same old by the second entry in the series. Then again—thats how you know its a Rocky movie.