One step at a time. One punch at a time. One round at a time. Since Adonis “Creed” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) took Ricky Conlan to his absolute limit, he’s been on an absolute roll in the light heavyweight boxing division. With legendary “Unc” Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in his corner as trainer, and love of his life Bianca (Tessa Thompson) by his side, the kid realizes his potential to be the name in the boxing world.
His own talent and hard work got him to this point, and not the connection to his late father. But that connection remains burrowed in the mind of one Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Exiled out of Mother Russia after losing to Balboa some 30 years ago, he now trains his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to restore the family name. The easiest way to do so? Challenge Creed to a boxing match. Past becomes present and Adonis must contend with not only Viktor, but why he fights and who he fights for.
To revisit, it is rather shocking to really think about how great the rebooted Creed truly was. Not based off the main character, but a secondary character to the series and somehow, it simultaneously tied loose ends of the six Rockys, eradicated the weak parts, and laid a fight plan down for future series films. Is it a mildly disappointing that Creed II pulls heavily from Rocky II, Rocky III and Rocky IV? Sure, but at this point, every boxing movie does. Acknowledging that the pure wow and stopping power isn’t the same, Creed II does enough to win comfortably on the scorecard.
Fights aren’t the sole reason people tune into this franchise, though they are a core reason. Previous director Ryan Coogler was able to do some spectacular things behind the camera, whether chronicling Donny’s backyard ballroom brawls in Mexico, the two-round knockout of Leo Sporino in one take, or the pay-per-view spectacle of his main event in England. An innate sense of pacing and fluidity (mixed with appropriate physicality) permeated not just the boxing bouts, but the entire feature. Coogler is present for the sequel as an executive producer without the directorial responsibilities, those trunks now being worn by Steven Caple, Jr. (The Land).
It’s a difficult scenario that the budding director is tasked to do, and it’s one that he predominantly passes with good marks. No one moment will compare to those previously mentioned, and at times, the run-time is felt more here than desired. But, Caple, Jr. is good…really good, and some may like his heavier and, let’s say “Fight Night-esque” style over Coogler’s, not unlike preferring a boxer specializing in one style over another. Ludwig Göransson adds another notch to his growing quality composer discography, once again bringing standout hip-hop artists and classical Rocky sounds into a compelling meld.
Creed is written so well that the sting of its jabs, crosses, and uppercuts are still felt in its sequel, which is decidedly lesser though far from deplorable in quality. This go-around, the writing falls to Stallone, Juel Taylor, Cheo Hodari Coker, and Sascha Penn. The general boxing narrative isn’t profound, typically involving a rags-to-riches moral victory aspect, or, rise-fall-rise format. Creed II leans on the latter by asking a core question: What are you fighting for? It’s a fairly clever inversion to 2015’s movie theme about fighting for one’s self, realizing that can only go so far to a point. Where Creed II has a sort of steep drop-off is its dialogue and flow, as there are a few times in particular when it feels like a 72-year-old had a little too much say in what is said and how it sounds rather than a 30-ish year-old tapped fully into the 21st century.
Regardless, this cast elevates and covers for any deficiencies. Of course, Jordan is impressive physically, and equally impressive emotionally selling his pain and trauma in getting back to what he was. His chemistry with Thompson is one of the most natural on-screen unions in cinema today, building on what they did before. Stallone—plot-wise—takes a rightful step back in this one. There will be no Academy Award love this go-around, but Sly is fully tapped into the wise man persona that his character is now, and things wrap up and tie quite nice for Rock, should a Creed III choose to do so.
Supporting characters from the prior movie occupied by Wood Harris and Phylicia Rashad have much more to do here and provide significant story weight. Munteanu’s physicality is unmatched and probably will never be in any boxing feature. But it is his on-screen father played wonderfully by Lundgren that surprisingly semi-humanizes the man (as well as his son) known for becoming a meme when he uttered the famous line of “If he dies, he dies.” The duo’s relationship is very reminiscent of ESPN’s 30 for 30 classic of The Marinovich Project and a clear example of how the failures of a parent are projected onto their offspring, often with disastrous consequences.
True, Creed II is missing the dazzling hand-to-hand precision and unique counters to familiar squared circle terrority its predecessor possessed. However, there’s still magic in these gloves to glide to another exciting, rousing viewing experience.
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