The original “Rocky” is a bona fide classic. Its sequels—not so much. After the original ascended those Philadelphia steps and introduced Rocky Balboa to the world, its follow-ups descended into bombast and self-parody, culminating in the abysmal “Rocky V”. Sylvester Stallone wrote and directed a ruminative farewell to the series with “Rocky Balboa” in 2006, but in the words of the boxer himself, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” And so the entire series got a sequel in “Creed”.
If you’re unfamiliar with “Creed”, here’s a quick summary of the connection between the two series: in “Rocky”, aspiring Philly boxer Rocky Balboa fights heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed and loses; in “Rocky II”, Balboa fights Creed again and wins; in “Rocky III”, Creed becomes Balboa’s trainer; in “Rocky IV”, Creed fights Russian boxer Ivan Drago and is killed in the ring, but Balboa challenges Drago and wins. 2015’s “Creed” revealed that Apollo fathered an illegitimate son named Adonis, who is eventually trained by Balboa himself to become the next generation’s legendary boxer.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler thematically transformed the franchise with “Creed”. While the “Rocky” movies embodied the dream of American individualism—one man, coming from nowhere, working hard enough to become the best—“Creed” emphasized the reality of collectivism, that we all come from somewhere and don’t get anywhere without the communities around us. People of color on both sides of the camera shifted the solo fighter narrative into one of community and legacy. “Creed II” lost Ryan Coogler and put Sylvester Stallone back on screenwriting duty, so the results are a little different.
Fortunately, the sequel still honors the theme of legacy, largely because Sylvester Stallone really cares about this series—the first “Rocky” was his passion project, one that saved him from homelessness and launched his acting career. Whether he’s writing or acting in “Creed II”, Stallone brings his A-game to the table. The movie is full of loving references and extends the focus on family from “Creed” in satisfying ways. Its focus on Adonis Creed, though, is a little lacking.
Coogler’s “Creed” was a movie of few words, one that centered on Adonis through aesthetic choices and context, making sure that every frame of the movie told his story in and out of the ring. “Creed II” is, well, more forward—and more like the “Rocky” sequels. The spectacle is more important than the character here: Ivan Drago, the Soviet boxer who killed Adonis’ father in “Rocky IV”, comes to America to pit his son against Apollo’s son. Adonis accepts; it’s the fight of the century! But we rarely get a window into Adonis’ soul.
Instead, we get sports commentators delivering lines like “it’s all so Shakespearean! Two sons, worlds apart, but inexorably linked by tragedy.” If you ever hear a sports announcer speak like that, you should check to make sure you’re not trapped in a movie. “Creed II” begs to be seen as significant, but it does its namesake a disservice and doesn’t earn the title. Adonis is at the center of what’s happening in the movie, but what’s happening takes center stage. “Creed II” continually relies on psychic sports commentators to announce Adonis’ inner dialogue—it’s like something out of the satirical “Dodgeball”.
Oddly enough, Ivan Drago and his son Victor become the more compelling characters because the movie isn’t fixated on them. Victor is a quiet victim of his father’s hubris, and it’s suggested that Ivan was raised into a similar fate. Dolph Lundgren—returning as Ivan after 33 years—drew from his real-life abusive father for the role, and his performance is beautifully empathetic. The Soviet story is told through context and culture, humanizing the villains in a way that contrasts the right-wing nationalism of “Rocky IV”. Their subtly told subplot outshines the tale of the title character.
But still, there are a lot of well-shot, exciting boxing scenes in “Creed II”, and Michael B. Jordan puts as much effort into his performance as he did into his muscles. Tessa Thompson has a much larger role in the sequel and she knocks it out the park. The movie and its famous music are extremely crowd-pleasing, offering enough cheer-worthy moments to keep this entry solidly entertaining. Rocky’s still got fight, and Creed is deserving of the mantle—but next time, maybe don’t let his opponent become the most interesting thing in the ring.