The first Creed had the incredibly daunting task of rebooting the legendary Rocky franchise, starring a new character with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky playing second fiddle, to boot. That’s a large pedestal of inspirational moments and montages to live up to, but it did so vastly better than anyone expected, becoming the best movie in the whole franchise. That puts even more pressure on Creed II – the movie that has to live up to the movie that went beyond its own insurmountable expectations. Much like with the first Creed you can take deep breath and relax, because while it can’t quite live up to its predecessor in every way this second outing is an emotional knockout in its own right and keeps the ongoing franchise in fighting form.
After wowing the world at the end of Creed, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is riding high as one of the top boxers around, having just won the Heavyweight Championship, and Rocky (Stallone) has beaten cancer as if it was Mr. T. But as soon as the good times come both Creed and Rocky’s pasts come back to haunt them in the form of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) – the man who killed Adonis’ father Apollo in Rocky IV and whom Rocky whipped later that same movie in the most American movie moment ever. Now he’s got a big, hulking son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who could squash a watermelon with one row from his eight-pack abs, and they both want revenge against Rocky for tarnishing their family name. How are they going to do this, you ask? Why, by breaking Creed in the ring, of course. The word “break” is a very specific, as the two Russians use it often and indeed mean it literally.
When it was announced Stallone was going to write the script this time around (the last film was written by director Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington) as well as direct, I got a little nervous. The first Creed did such an incredible job establishing it’s own place that it seemed like bringing in Stallone to man the wheel would take the sequel backwards. However, he passed directing reins to Steven Caple, Jr., and shared scripting duties with Juel Taylor and together they all do a rousing job of moving Creed’s journey in a progressive, challenging direction that makes sense both as a Creed and Rocky IV sequel. Stallone and Taylor’s script captures Creed’s fears, insecurities, rage and hint of narcissism and places him against the perfect foe, forcing him to confront a grim reality and determine who it is he’s really fighting for. This is exactly where the story needed to go for this second outing, with the first Creed making Adonis accept his legacy – an origin story of sorts. Now he has to learn how to deal with that legacy, and the Dragos are the perfect confrontation for that emotional journey.
In essence, this really is a character study more than a straight boxing film. The first movie has more in-ring action, while this one spends a lot of time on Creed outside the square, coming to terms with how he has to handle his anger and flaws now that he has a family with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Caple Jr. may not craft the same visceral flair as Coogler did, but he is an excellent humanist, putting the characters front and center and getting terrific performances from his cast. While fighting is what gets the crowd ramped up, I was equally engaged with the character dynamics, especially between Creed and Thompson, as well as him and Rocky, the latter bond strained after Creed takes on the first Drago fight. They’re all just as great here as they were before, each taking their characters forward in meaningful ways.
That’s not to say this movie doesn’t have the good stuff audiences are expecting. There are three big fights in this movie, two between Creed and Drago. They are both hard-hitting and intense, with young Drago throwing his cannonball fists at Creed. Their fights have an emotional dynamic the fights in the first movie don’t, and we can thank that to both Ivan and Viktor getting the time they need to be more than throwaway boxing baddies. Disgraced in their homeland, Ivan uses his son to earn back favor with the Russian elite, with Viktor feeling the pressure from his stoic father. Lundgren – more known for action flicks than his catalog of dramatic works – turns in some great work here as the broken Drago, desperate and hungry for vengeance. Munteanu doesn’t speak much, but he’s an excellent physical performer, even out of the ring, showing pain and anger when his estranged mother (Brigitte Nielsen) makes an appearance.
The climax of these two warriors is filled with rousing moments and emotional payoff, and while the story as a whole does follow the familiar, expected pattern of defeat-humbling-victory, Creed II is exactly the movie it needed to be to make this a series worth rooting for. The characters are respected, the boxing is exciting, the conflict(s) have meaningful place, and the stories of Creed and Rocky evolve in logical, effecting ways. This would be an excellent place to stop the series, and it’s hard to tell where to go now that the Dragos have come and gone, but that won’t be the case. The movie will make money, and Creed III can be expected. But now that third entry has the biggest mountain to climb, as this unexpectedly great reboot series keeps on winning the gold.