8.5 out of 10
Michael B. Jordan – Adonis Johnson
Sylvester Stallone – Rocky Balboa
Tessa Thompson – Bianca Porter
Phylicia Rashad – Mary Anne Creed
Dolph Lundgren – Ivan Drago
Florian Munteanu – Viktor Drago
Russell Hornsby – Buddy Marcelle
Wood Harris – Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton
Andre Ward – Danny ‘Stuntman’ Wheeler
Directed by Steven Caple Jr.
Creed II suffers from familiarity; anyone who has ever seen a sports movie before – heck, any of the previous entries in the Rocky Saga before – knows how these normally go. The fun isn’t in seeing these tropes play out, but in the details. It’s in those specifics that Creed II excels. For those keeping score, no, Creed II isn’t as good as its predecessor. It’s got a few strikes against it. Steven Cagle Jr, while a perfectly fine director, doesn’t provide the style, the writing skills, or that sense of gravitas that Ryan Coogler gave Creed. Coogler and screenwriter Aaron Covington breathed new life in the Rocky Saga – they gave tremendous respect to the franchise but they were also determined to carve new paths and stake their own ground. The screenwriters this time around are Sylvester Stallone and Joel Taylor, who deliver lots of power and emotion, but they are also moving down well-traveled roads. Creed II is also as much a sequel to Rocky IV as it is to Creed.
For fans of this series, that may be a good thing. Personally, I’ve always felt that Rocky IV was one of the weaker entries in the Rocky Saga, but it also has the catalyst that makes the Creed films possible – Ivan Drago’s (Dolph Lundgren) devastating bout with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) that resulted in Apollo’s death. Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) has struggled with that all of his life, but he’s also been able to use it as a personal motivation in his own boxing career. At the beginning of Creed II, that career is at its apex, with a fight for the heavyweight championship of the world against Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward). Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has been training him since the Conlan fight three years before, and the bond between Adonis and Rocky is stronger than ever. Also strong is Adonis’ relationship with Bianca Porter (Tessa Thompson), and they love each other and respect each other deeply. Bianca’s hearing condition, however, is getting worse, and she feels that she is living on borrowed time.
Boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) knows a great narrative when he sees it, and into that narrative steps Ivan Drago and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), a successful boxer in his own right. The famous fight between Drago and Balboa back in 1985 left Drago destitute, and with his wife gone, all Ivan has left is his son. He has honed Viktor into a deadly weapon, and both Ivan and Viktor are ready to ascend to their rightful place in boxing.
You can see where this is going from space, but while Creed II suffers from a bit of predictability, it’s in the character work and the acting that the film shines, and for fans of this franchise, that will be more than enough. I am confident in saying that Michael B. Jordan is one of the most dynamic, charismatic actors working today, and someday he’s going to be rewarded with an Oscar. He’s had a grand 2018 – his Killmonger in Black Panther is one of the very best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the best supporting performances this year. There is a deep well of emotion to Adonis, not only with his struggles confronting his past, but in moving beyond it and creating his own future with Bianca and with his career. Jordan makes us feel every moment of that. This gives Creed II a remarkable similarity to Rocky II – after your life changes so drastically, how do you commit to that change and still remain, intrinsically, the same person as before? Rocky II is probably the most underrated chapter in the Saga (some will say Rocky V, but do not believe that crazy talk) and there’s a spirituality that is shared between Rocky II and Creed II that I found compelling. Throughout Adonis’ journey, Michael B. Jordan excels.
Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is just as compelling. She knows Adonis intimately and they are soulmates. I admire very much the path that the writers and Thompson walk with Bianca. She is a woman of agency; while she loves Adonis deeply, she also has her own goals, dreams, and needs, and Jordan and Thompson give us a relationship full of synergy and passion. They complement each other perfectly, and understand and support each other. When life gives both Adonis and Bianca a few curves, their love for each other strengthens each other. Again, you can chart where this film goes easily, but Jordan and Thompson give us new angles, new perspectives to consider, that make the old new again. I love the relationship both have with Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who, while reminding them of the past, is also eager to embrace their future.
Sylvester Stallone will always be Rocky Balboa, more so than any of the other characters he’s played. I am steadfast in my belief that he should have won Best Supporting Actor for Creed. But Creed II (and Creed) isn’t about him. The saga, and the audience, have moved on. I deeply admire what Stallone has done here; basically, he’s stepped back, and considering the involvement that Stallone has in this film (not only as a writer but producer as well) he is perfectly willing to give these new characters the stage. Rocky has his own demons to conquer – his reluctance to return to the scene of the crime, as he sees it, and his internal struggle with his own family issues, and Stallone plays those moments perfectly well. But his performance here is more subdued than in Creed, and that’s entirely due to the film’s focus. Rightfully so, these movies have moved past Rocky Balboa, and to the series’ benefit. But Stallone is still Rocky, and still very much a part of Creed II‘s beating heart.
Where this film truly surprised me is in the relationship between Ivan and Viktor Drago. It’s more complicated than simple father/son issues, and while Lundgren or Munteanu do not have a lot of dialogue, they put all of those complications into their performance. I will say this – the arc of their story may be the most satisfying arc in the film. This franchise’s film definitely have a pattern, and when that pattern is broken in a significant way, it’s noticeable and welcome. I love the complexity of the Dragos’ relationship. How that story and that relationship plays out in Creed II is beautiful and emotionally fulfilling. This may be a bit touchy-feely for a Balboa/Creed movie, but hey, it made me tear up. These movies often do.
If I have any complaints, it’s that there are a few loose ends that are left hanging out there – Buddy Marcelle feels like a character that had a few bits and pieces edited out. Cagle is a good director, but he doesn’t have the flair of Coogler, and there are moments that needed that flair. Cinematographer Kramer Morganthau is good, but Maryse Alberti gave this series a new visual punch and perspective that Morganthau doesn’t provide. Returning champion Ludwig Göransson’s score is a bit more restrained this time, but it brings the thunder when it has to. There’s one particular musical moment in the final fight that had me smiling, and surprisingly it wasn’t a revisit to Bill Conti’s leitmotif. I’ll just say that Bianca and Adonis are a great team, and I wouldn’t want to go against them in a fight.
So, where does Creed II rank in the franchise? Tough call right now, as I’ve only seen it once. I’ve always said this series is better than critics and audiences give it credit for. There are more good films than bad ones. This one is really good, probably on par with Rocky III, but it doesn’t reach the heights of Rocky or Creed, and frankly, it wasn’t possible that it would. But it’s still immensely satisfying, gives all us fans moments to cheer for, and builds on the new foundation that Ryan Coogler laid down in Creed. I welcome Creed III, if it happens – this series feels like it has at least one more story to tell, but if Creed II is the last of these movies, that’s a damn fine ending to go out on. Like Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed, Creed II takes the hits and keeps on standing.