Creed II ramps up the nostalgia in a story that's as much a family drama as it is a boxing movie.
2015's Creed was the best kind of surprise. What seemed destined to be a sad resurrection of a franchise already long past its prime turned out to be a benchmark moment for sports movies, combining heart-pumping pugilism with the same kind of tender romance that underscored and grounded the original Rocky. As Adonis 'Donnie' Creed, Michael B. Jordan delivered a fearless performance laden with vulnerability and irresistible charisma, while Sylvester Stallone's reserved turn reminded audiences that beneath his tough guy exterior remains a fine and gifted actor possessed of a deep emotional range. Those same qualities and performances are again present in Creed II, although the story itself unfortunately fails to match the power and drive of its predecessor.
The setup is certainly juicy enough. Viktor Drago, son of Ivan – the man who killed Creed's father Apollo in the ring during Rocky IV – arrives in Philadelphia with his father and challenges the newly-crowned heavyweight champion of the world to a fight. It's a chance to "rewrite history" as Donnie tells his mother. But Rocky's heart is filled with dread, with his sense of guilt over Apollo's death a constant companion. Refusing to train Donnie, he and his protege part ways until a tragedy of sorts brings them back together and it's time for another classic training montage. Outside of the ring, Tessa Thompson gives Creed II some much-needed personal drama as Donnie's girlfriend Bianca, delivering another passionate performance imbued with a great deal of heart despite being disappointingly relegated to a more secondary role this time around.
Directed by Steven Caple Jr. taking over from Black Panther's Ryan Coogler, Creed II is clearly at its strongest in the ring, where its glorious combination of POV camerawork and sumptuous sound design contributes to an almost uncomfortably visceral, bone-crunching experience. Slow-motion is used more sparingly than is usual in boxing films, reserved here for the truly devastating body blows and upper-cuts. You really feel the hits in this movie, especially those delivered to the ribs where the accompanying snap will have you hugging yourself tightly for comfort.
The writing, however, is notably weaker, due perhaps to Coogler's absence (save for an executive producer credit). The screenplay, co-written by Stallone, still has its moments, but lacks the nuance and restraint that helped make Creed into something special. There are too many lines that sound like they were ripped straight from fortune cookies ("It may not seem like it now, but this is more than just a fight"), while the periodic narration from the TV and ringside commentators that added so much authenticity to the original is downright abysmal in the sequel. Countering this, thankfully, are the fine repeat performances from Stallone, Jordan and Thompson, whose chemistry and closeness continue to sizzle on screen. The joy of seeing Dolph Lundgren return as Drago, too, is a highlight, but one that's sadly short lived as he's given little more to do than scowl and grizzle from his first scene to his last.
Similarly, the most interesting character in Creed II is also its least explored. Viktor Drago is an irresistible combination of brute physical force and deep-seeded emotional turmoil, neatly packaged inside the 6-foot-4 mountain of muscle that is Romanian boxer and fitness model Florian Munteanu. Abandoned by his mother, weaponised by his father and ignored by his country until a string of victories bring him into the light, Viktor's most compelling fight is the one that's unseen. As he and his father are welcomed back into Russian high society, the young Drago finds no satisfaction in his celebrity, acutely aware of the fair-weather nature of the fans and disgusted by his father's seemingly instant compliance with those who rejected him (including Viktor's mother). Yet Munteanu finds himself forced to play a caricature – although he manages to sneak in moments of emotional subtlety where he can.
Indeed, why they fight is at the heart of both fighters' story in Creed II. Driven by reasons that at first seem clear, both Viktor and Donnie soon find ambiguity and doubt needling their way into their respective psyches. By the time the big finale arrives, they remind you of soldiers on a battlefield, bloodied and beaten, yet ultimately more like brothers than enemies – men sent to destroy one another at the behest of those safe behind the lines. As much a father/son story as it is a boxing one, Creed II's tale of family and redemption ultimately doesn't match the quality of the original. Even so, it's a compelling sequel, and worthy of your time.
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