Read Paul Shirey’s take HERE
PLOT: Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), newly crowned the heavyweight champion of the world, is coerced into fighting Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring thirty years ago.
REVIEW: First, a preface. I’m a serious ROCKY fanatic. I was born in ’81, so I grew up with the series embedded in my DNA. As five or six year old, you couldn’t go over to a birthday party without ROCKY III or IV coming on at some point, after which the roomful of kids would go crazy and start throwing shadow jabs at each other. Something about these movies just get the blood pumping for a whole generation of us, and even the most hardcore fan had to be impressed by Ryan Coogler’s ingenious continuation of the franchise with CREED.
Given how well-liked it was though, the fact that Coogler was too embedded in Marvel and BLACK PANTHER to come back was a tad worrying. Fans need not be troubled though, as it turns out Sylvester Stallone, the man who, let’s not forget, gave birth to the franchise in the first place, ably takes over, bringing on a whole slew of younger creative talent to help him make this a worthy follow-up to both Coogler’s film and his own series.
You have to hand it to Sly for taking his ego out of the equation. Originally, he was set to direct, but wisely he stepped aside for a younger, black director, Steven Caple Jr., who brings a grit and contemporary vibe to the movie Sly might have struggled with. Caple is a filmmaker from Coogler/ Jordan’s generation, and CREED II benefits from the best of both worlds approach. Sly knows Rocky and boxing, but Caple clearly has insight into Creed and thus the whole thing comes together beautifully.
Picking up more-or-less where the original left off, Adonis is now the heavyweight champ and still palling around with Rocky, who’s beaten cancer and is now his devoted trainer. All it takes to bring their world crashing down though is an unscrupulous promoter (FENCES’ Russell Hornsby) to dig up the Drago’s, who are keen to tear down everything they built, setting the stage for a larger-than-life battle royale that finds solid middle ground between the fantasy of ROCKY III and IV, and the more down-to-earth heroics of the first two.
What makes CREED II so good is the superlative character work. Adonis is, like Rocky, an aspirational character, but he’s also given a stubborn streak and an ego, making it believable that his eagerness to take on Drago would create a rift with Rocky. Stallone could find himself once again an Oscar nominee for his return as Balboa, with it in perfect continuity with the character that he wouldn’t be keen to have history repeat itself by throwing another Creed in the ring with a Drago, and it’s nice to see their father/son dynamic get a little meat on its bones.
Aiding things immensely is the fact that Ivan and Viktor Drago are not two-dimensional. Lundgren’s Ivan isn’t the robot he was in IV. He’s flawed, but also a man with his own aspirations, and Lundgren aces his performance in a way that should pave the way back to bigger roles for him. Florian Munteanu is a real find as Viktor, who bristles at the way he’s welcomed into the same Russian fold that made his dad an outcast, giving him solid motivation of his own. Meanwhile, Tessa Thompson’s part is expanded, with her really coming into her own as Creed’s beloved Bianca, with a twist early in the film giving her an arc that gives her even more agency than she had the first time.
Overall, Sly and co-writer Juel Taylor have nailed down a script that, coupled with Caple’s smart and gritty direction, gives CREED II an edge that makes it a more than worthy follow-up to Coogler’s film. It helps that much of the original’s creative team is back, including Ludwig Goransson, who returns as composer, although my one complaint is that the look of the film is a little drab compared to Maryse Alberti’s lensing in the original, although I imagine that was a deliberate choice to give the film a grittier look. Really though, as far as sequels go where the original director opts not to return, CREED II is your best case scenario. It lives up to the original and also stands on its own two feet, boding well for CREED III, IV and beyond. Heck, Sly’s been playing Rocky for over forty years now. Maybe Jordan will have the same luck.