By Tony Di Nizo
Rocky is one of the most beloved and famous franchises in movie history. After retiring in 2006 with the film Rocky Balboa, Ryan Coogler brought the series back to life with 2015’s Creed. The film successfully re-energized the franchise by shifting focus to the son of Rocky’s enemy-turned-friend, Apollo Creed. Now with Creed II (2018), Ryan Coogler has passed on directing duties due to his commitment to Black Panther (2017). While the sequel is not as strong as Coogler’s original, it’s still a very effective and entertaining drama that adds greater depth to the Rocky sequels that inspired it.
The story starts a few years after the events of the first movie, as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is about to become the world heavyweight champion and propose to his girlfriend, Bianca Porter (Tessa Thompson). Then everything changes when he is challenged to a match by Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) who is a rising boxer and the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) who killed Adonis’ father in the ring during a boxing match.
When Adonis accepts Viktor’s match, Rocky refuses to train him for the fight. Going into the match using his old fighting style, Adonis is badly beaten. While recovering from his injuries he pushes himself to evolve his fighting style and asks himself who or what is he really fighting for?
The story and the script are one of the films’ weaker elements. Penned by Stallone and newcomer Juel Taylor the film features more Rocky lore than the first Creed film which unfortunately is a disservice to this story. What made the first Creed work so well was its fresh and modern depiction of a boxing drama. While this script is more than competent it feels very predictable with story beats you can see from a mile away. The script is at its best during the small moments between the characters, because the characters and the performances are the strongest aspects of the film.
Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone both deliver excellent performances. With Rocky’s story taking the back burner to focus more on Adonis’ journey. It allows Jordan to delve deeper into the characters’ insecurities resulting in a very compelling performance. Stallone continues to impress as an older and more regretful Rocky and his dynamic with Jordan is a strong spine for the film to rest on. Filling out the supporting cast, Tessa Thompson does an excellent job, elevating the role of “the supportive wife” to a character with legitimate agency and a story of her own. The subplot following her rising music career adds much-needed breathing room between the ruff-and-tumble testosterone of the boxing matches. Phylicia Rashad reprises her role of Adonis’ stepmother Mary Anne Creed, and just like in the first film she steals every scene she’s in. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this film was Dolph Lundgren’s performance, who took his cartoonish and stereotypical character from Rocky IV and modernized him into a tragic and shattered figure. This strengthens the villain subplot which is typically where the Rocky films have suffered in the past.
Director Steven Caple Jr. does a nice job behind the camera, but his directorial sensibilities lack the flourish Coogler brought to the first film. For example, the boxing matches, while thrilling and expertly choreographed, are not as well-executed or visually-interesting as they were in the first outing. However, Caple Jr. embraces the stylized vérité aesthetic and the film maintains a strong sense of realism, bolstered by an excellent hip-hop soundtrack from composer Ludwig Göransson. The score adds a nice feeling of nostalgia to the film with a cool, modern edge.
Overall, Creed II does an excellent job building upon the first Creed’s story and themes in a satisfying way. It is not as groundbreaking or spectacular as the first film but it still is a worthy and entertaining sequel. Those who are fans of the first film will not be disappointed and I am looking forward to seeing Adonis Creed step into the boxing ring again.