Released in the middle of the prestige-movie season in 2015, Creed wasn’t just an anomaly among the Oscarbait-and-biopics circuit: It wondered whether a continuation of a dormant movie series and a comeback of sorts for its creator was in the cards. It was also an unlikely attempt to establish a side franchise, a chance for filmmaker Ryan Coogler to prove he could beat the sophomore slump and a referendum on whether Michael B. Jordan could be a movie star. Quicker than you could yell “Adrian!” we had answers. The movie became a hit, Sylvester “The Rocky” Stallone nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (you wuz robbed, Rock!) and no one is questioning Coogler or Jordan’s staying power or box-office clout anymore. The mantle had officially been passed. It more than went the distance.
And in the grand tradition of Rocky movies, in which Roman-numeral sequels were not just inevitable but practically exponential, we have the next chapter of Adonis “Donny” Creed — son of Apollo, Rocky Balboa’s protégé, Philly pugilism’s pride and joy, and, as the film opens, the new WBC heavyweight champion. Jordan and Stallone are back in the ring, even if Coogler isn’t; Steven Caple Jr., a young filmmaker with a few featherweight shorts and a coming-of-age indie (The Land) to his name, takes over. (You wanted a scrappy punching-his-way-up-the-ranks story, you got one! It’s just strictly behind the camera this time.) But the man in the title is no longer an underdog, and neither is this spin-off series. Creed II doesn’t have the element of surprise in its favor. It has to switch up its game. It’s gotta bring in the Big Russkie.
That’s Viktor Drago (Florian Munteau), a young and hungry contender out of the Ukraine who looks like he’s the entire Eastern Bloc shoved into a single fit-to-burst human form. (“Big, fast, strong… that’s one balanced breakfast,” a trainer played by Wood Harris observes. More like a Vegas-style breakfast buffet.) If the surname of this mountain of muscles sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), icon of Cold War kitsch and the heavily accented bad guy of Rocky IV. You might remember that Ivan was also the fighter who killed Creed’s dad in the ring, during a bout which the Balboa constrictor himself could have stopped by throwing in the towel… and didn’t. Now Viktor wants a shot at the title. Ivan wants to restore his family’s name, which became Mud-ski in the Motherland after losing to the Italian-American Stallion. A wily promoter (Russell Hornsby) wants money.
It’s not really a spoiler to inform folks that Adonis has his own personal reasons for itching to take on Drago Jr., or that both his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson, granite-solid as always) and Rocky aren’t crazy about the idea. The older boxer, in fact, wants nothing to do with this — “He broke things in me that ain’t never been fixed,” he says about his old opponent — and opts out of being in Creed’s corner. And it’s only kinda sorta slightly a spoiler to say that Adonis does take the fight, and ends up in the hospital. After licking his wounds, it’s time for a lot of soul-searching and, eventually, a rematch. Which means Rocky is back in the mix. Which also means, naturally, a back-to-basics training montage in the desert involving pick-axing a hole in the ground, a medicine ball vs. Michael B. Jordan’s abs (the winner: the audience) and toe-to-toe sparring involving a two men and a tire.
In this corner: Father Issues, weighing in at roughly a metric ton and packing one hell of a male-weepie wallop. The original Creed was fueled by Adonis’ desire to use the sweet science as a way of both finding an identity and getting close to a parent he never knew; the follow-up quadruples down on what you’d call Pops-psychology angst, throwing enough unfinished daddy business into the mix to power several melodramas. Rocky hasn’t talked to his son in ages, and has never met his grandkid. When Viktor isn’t pummeling people, he’s pining for Ivan’s withheld affections, since the elder Drago is projecting his own shame onto his offspring and pushing him to atone for his own defeat decades ago. The Creed family also finds itself with a new member, which means audiences are treated to the sight of Jordan desperately trying to soothe a crying baby. That sequence ends with him finally quieting the infant in a gym — at which point Adonis begins whaling on a punching bag and sobbing. This is a boxing movie that hits the heavy baggage. Freud would have loved the subtextual undercard.
And in this corner: Mild Nostalgia, demonstrating a decent right hook when it comes to any fondness you might have for the 1985 Rocky entry in which the movie’s star wrapped himself in the stars and stripes. Yes, of course Lundgren will play off the older film’s most famous exchange, telling Stallone that “My son will break your boy.” Two generations of Dragos will ascend the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and watch as tourists pose next to the real-life Rocky statue. There will be blood, and Bill Conti’s famous score, and a Brigitte Nielsen cameo or two. The only element missing is the insane jingoism of that Reagan-era propaganda piece, which oddly doesn’t translate yesteryear’s paranoia over a Russian takeover with today’s deserved anxiety over the same. (You picture Trump at a press conference: “Drago’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine.“) If anything, Creed II transforms the villain from a crude caricature to a human being; the film’s best scene (non-Jordan division) finds Balboa and his old nemesis sitting down in the former’s bistro, two old warriors bristling yet silently bonding over their scars. “A chunk of yesterday tryin’ to be today,” is how Balboa describes himself at one point. The line stings.
He might also be describing Creed II, for that matter, and what you may really feel nostalgic for is how the first movie took Stallone’s original story template and retooled it, revised it, deepened it for a modern audience. Creed was a movie with an incredible sense of the region, a chance for Stallone to give his iconic character a lion-in-winter sense of grace and enough space to let Jordan and Thompson have this conversation. That’s largely AWOL here. And while Caple Jr. has a good sense of storytelling and filmmaking style — that behind-the-head traveling shot, most associated with the Dardenne brothers and video games, has now officially hit the mainstream — there’s nothing on the level of, say, the original’s single-shot fight scene. (A P.O.V. punch shot is a nice touch, however. Ditto a scene of Rocky in a waiting room, tightly framed within vertical parallel lines.) Stallone co-wrote the screenplay along with Juel Taylor (from a story by Luke Cage‘s Cheo Hodari Coker), yet he’s mostly given himself platitudes like, “You gotta get pain to give pain.” He’s gone from supporting character to something perilously close to window dressing.
Which means this whole thing rests on Jordan’s protein-shake shoulders, and the fact that that’s really all this sequel needs to succeed is a testament to the actor’s talent and ability to tame some of the rougher patches of the story by laying down a genuine emotional foundation. He’s grown into one of the single most charismatic screen performers working today, full stop, and in our current age of movie-star deficiency, spending two hours watching him be tender, tough, vulnerable, vengeful, downbeat and uplifting is time well spent. Make no mistake, however: This is not a reinvention of the wheel, just a rotation of the tires. For a story that started with a young man trying to follow in huge footsteps while blazing his own path, it might be unfair to play the compare game here. Yet Creed II does not give us anything but another, slightly superior Rocky sequel. It wins on points. Just don’t expect a knockout.