The Rocky series, considered by some to be one of the best film franchises, is a bit of an anomaly as it has probably done the best job of transitioning into a new era. Instead of opting for a reboot, the franchise essentially created a spin-off series with the formerly titular Rocky taking a supporting role in Creed (2015). This has given the franchise the flexibility to evolve and move away from the core events that started the franchise. So why does Creed II feel so inconsequential?
Going into any Rocky film, two things are certain: the hero is either going to win or lose the final fight. If the writers are really feeling frisky, they’ll even throw in a street fight just to spice things up! So it’s clear that real drama in all of these films are the internal struggles of the characters. This formula has led to a pyramid of quality – Fantastic, enjoyably solid or average, and aggressively mediocre or cliché. It’s the same pyramid the James Bond franchise runs to varying degrees of success.
Creed II occupies that second distinction. It’s never outright bad, just aimless and redundant. The film follows Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) as he wins the heavyweight title, and is abruptly challenged by Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Rocky IV baddie Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Lundgren returns to portray the character that made him famous, and he wants revenge for his humiliating loss in Rocky IV, a defeat that caused him shame in his native country of Russia and prompted his wife to leave him.
Some may have been weary of the idea of bringing back Drago, but he and his son are the best part of the movie – mostly because they’re the characters with the most story to tell. The film’s greatest accomplishment is turning the most cartoonish, meme-able villain of the series into a flesh and blood character with genuine pathos. Viktor also has depth and intrigue, as he’s been anointed by his father to finish a fight that Ivan couldn’t 30 years ago. Not that Viktor is a completely passive character; at one point he questions why Ivan is working so hard to please his ex-wife, the woman who abandoned their family. The tension between father and son leads to a resolution in the final act for both characters that partially redeems the elder Drago, even if it isn’t in the way he intended.
The complexity of the Dragos is unintentionally contrasted with the static complacency of Adonis. Michael B. Jordan is still one of our most charismatic actors, but this Adonis Creed feels like running in place instead of soaring to new places. The original Creed followed his journey to accept and carry the burden of his father’s legacy, while being his own man. Here, Adonis accepts Viktor’s challenge as a prideful defense for his family name, even as Rocky and the rest of his family tell him this is not a fight worth taking. But Adonis knows that winning this battle can avenge his father while also allowing himself to leap from his father’s shadow.
Unfortunately, the conflict treads too closely to his familial dilemma of the first film. Instead of Adonis needing to establish himself as his own man, we’ve made a lateral move of him moving on from his former family to establish his new family – his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his newborn child. This is why so many of Adonis’ scenes (his heavyweight championship win, his proposal to Bianca) come off flat. It’s all similar ground to what we covered in the first film, just slightly different circumstances. Even what should be a powerful scene at his father Apollo’s grave site comes off as a rerun because the themes feel the same.
There’s a lot to love about the film, including the aforementioned Dragos, and a subplot involving Rocky’s estranged relationship with his son. New director Steven Caple, Jr, replacing the original’s Ryan Coogler, continues the latter’s eye for electric fight scenes and training montages. There are a couple of shots involving Adonis training in a pool or performing a breathtaking sprint on a highway that would feel just as home in an elaborate marketing campaign for Nike or Under Armour as it does in this film. The fight scenes are in your face, forcing you to feel every punch. You can practically feel the sweat.
Where I wanted to see the film really soar, however, was the screenplay. The best Rocky films are the ones that challenge the characters personally. Despite several speeches to try to convince otherwise, Creed II only challenges our heroes physically – Viktor is bigger and stronger than Adonis, and that’s why he gets his ass kicked. But Adonis just doesn’t lose enough personally. Even a subplot involving his newborn daughter, and the idea that child may be deaf just like her mother, is barely touched upon. Perhaps the film would have been better suited of allowing Adonis and Viktor to reach a personal resolution with each other; a way to rectify the painful memories felt by both families. Instead, their conflicts feel totally separate from each other, so much so that they might as well be in separate movies. There will certainly be a Creed III, and I’m not upset by that. I just hope that next time, the champ has better challenges.