As Rocky II was to Rocky, so is Creed II to its powerhouse progenitor — that is, a pale shadow of its daddy. Slack and unexciting compared to Ryan Coogler’s blisteringly good 2015 reconception of a 1970s icon for modern audiences, this follow-up is an undeniable disappointment in nearly every way, from its dreary homefront interludes to a climactic boxing match that feels far-fetched in the extreme. Nothing here has been freshly thought out, nor is there a drop of surprise as to the story’s trajectory, forcing the viewer to tolerate conventional emotional beats and stale plot contrivances. All the same, Creed is a brand just as Rocky was, so it will succeed, at least up to a point.
After taking the heavyweight title three years ago, Creed, a.k.a. Adonis Johnson (the beautifully buff Michael B. Jordan), is finally working up the nerve to ask his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) to marry him in the wake of winning a championship bout. But there’s an opponent over in the Ukraine also preying on his nerves, one Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), a giant fighting machine who just happens to be the son of the man who killed Creed’s dad Apollo in the ring a generation earlier in Rocky IV, he being Ivan Drago (played by none other than a scruffy but handsomely aged Dolph Lundgren).
A rocky bout.
Audiences happy to see the same old scenario played out all over again, albeit with far less suspense than before, might be willing to swallow this regurgitation of used ingredients, as may the vast number of young people who have never seen the original series. However, not only are the boxing matches shot in an entirely conventional manner, particularly compared to the wonderfully inventive approach to the fights taken by Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti the first time around, but the domestic scenes are listless. The script is stuffed with corny bashfulness on Creed’s part, and there’s page after page of expository dialogue, as Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who has a goodly number of scenes) takes time out from chatting with his wife’s tombstone in order to advise Creed not to fight Viktor Drago.
From what we see of Viktor in his training sessions, the man is an absolute monster. Several inches taller than his American opponent, he looks like he could KO Creed in one round and then take on Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel simultaneously just for laughs. As for his dad, Ivan has become a true expendable, having led a miserable outcast’s life since disgracing the USSR, with his loss to Rocky but presumably in line for rehabilitation if his son wins the crown.
But after plenty of hemming and hawing for 45 minutes, the inevitable match comes to pass. “It all feels so Shakespearean,” the broadcast announcer intones, but if only it did. With Adonis looking like a little kid up against a monster, the champ gets clobbered right off the bat. “Break him!,” Ivan commands of his boy, and so he does, but a lamentable scripting decision has Viktor being disqualified, therefore technically leaving the crown on the head of the American who’s just been pummeled. Any answer as to why the filmmakers decided Adonis couldn’t be beaten one time would seem lame, and this muddle is joined by Adonis’ regret that he didn’t have good old Rocky in his corner for this key bout.
Of course, this mistake is remedied for the inevitable rematch. However, that leaves debuting screenwriter Juel Taylor and her collaborator Stallone with the challenge of coming up with something interesting to fill another 45 minutes, which they almost entirely fail to do. Sadly, Thompson’s Bianca, such a vital presence in the first film, has lost most of her spunky charm. The pic’s focus shifts briefly to the birth of her baby, who has a disability, and then to Bianca’s musical activities, but all this is not only dully presented but feels like it belongs in some other movie.
The main thing, of course, is that Adonis needs to figure out how to get it together and beat the beast from the east. After some passable scenes that bring Rocky back center stage as he cajoles and inspires Adonis on what it will take to win as he did against a giant opponent, it’s off to Russia. From any realistic angle, the champ would have wanted a tuneup fight or two just to resharpen his skills and regain his confidence after his fiasco with Viktor, but there’s not even a discussion of the idea.
Adonis enters the ring in Moscow as a 25-to-1 underdog, but Rocky knows all about being underestimated and conveys his positive karma to his charge, and no one in the audience can doubt how the fight will go. But just because it’s inevitable doesn’t mean it’s convincing under the direction of Steven Caple Jr., whose previous feature (The Land) centered on teen skateboarders.
Nor are these Jordan’s finest two hours. After roaring to charismatic stardom in Fruitvale Station, Fantastic Four, Creed and Black Panther, he’s here called upon to be uncertain and lacking in confidence much of the time, unappealingly so when he bumbles through his marriage proposal and is wracked with doubts as to fighting Viktor. It’s not that he shouldn’t appear vulnerable, but these addled states seem to make not only his character but the actor himself clam up and seem uncommunicative and confused.
One of the film’s fleeting pleasures is to see Brigitte Nielsen, sleek and imperious as ever, pop up in a couple of scenes as Ivan’s ex. Another blast from the past is Bill Conti’s original “Rocky” theme, which surges onto the soundtrack at a key moment.
Production company: Chartoff Winkler
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Michel B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Screenwriters: Juel Taylor, Sylvester Stallone; story by Sascha Penn, Cheo Hodari Coker
Producers: Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King-Templeton, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, Dvid Winkler, Irwin Winkler
Executive producers: Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Guy Riedel
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau
Production designer: Franco Giacomo Carbone
Costume designer: Lizz Wolf
Editors: Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, Paul Harb
Music: Ludwig Goransson
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu
Rated PG-13, 130 minutes