The thing about Rocky movies is that most of them aren’t that great, and two big ol’ exceptions to that rule are the 1976 original and Ryan Coogler’s 2015 modern classic Creed, which remains one of the best sports films that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching (I still tear up at the training montage when I drunkenly watch YouTube clips late at night). So, like most other fans of that film, I wanted and didn’t want a sequel. I wanted to see what else Coogler would do with these characters, and I wanted to see them grow and evolve, but I wanted to specifically see what he would do with them. Once he was off the project and Sylvester Stallone suddenly found himself with a writing credit, people started to get worried, and especially so once Stallone and company settled on a Drago/Creed rematch for the film’s narrative centerpiece.
If you did love the first Creed, I’m sorry to say this, but you were right to be worried: Creed II, as helmed by The Land director Steven Caple, Jr., is not a worthy successor to Coogler’s film, and it’s a tremendous, bloated bummer.
So, it’s been three years since Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) went the distance with disgraced fighter “Pretty” Ricky Conlan and won the respect of the boxing world, and he’s been on a tear ever since alongside his cornerman Rocky Balboa (Stallone). We witness him triumph over one of his adversaries from the first film, Danny Wheeler (Andre Ward), in the opening minutes of the film, and with that victory he becomes the champ. He proposes to his longtime girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) right after the fight — her hearing loss getting even worse and worse — and the two find themselves at a crossroads. She wants him to leave Philly and go back to LA so that she can further her music career before it’s too late, and he doesn’t want to leave Rocky alone in his city after all they’ve been through. It’s then that an old adversary of Rocky’s — Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Adonis’ dad in the ring — shows up in his restaurant and reveals that he a) has a son, Viktor (German boxer Florian Munteanu) and b) that his son wants to kick Adonis’ ass so that they can crawl back to the top of the boxing world. This presence causes a schism between Rocky, who wants to not hold another dead Creed in his arms, and Adonis, who wants to avenge his dad’s death, and the two will have to work out their differences in order to be able to beat the Dragos.
The core ensemble — Jordan, Thompson, and, to a lesser extent, Stallone, who never met a corny metaphorical monologue he didn’t like — are all still in fine form, but the script that they’re working from is a clunker. Entire characterizations from the first Creed are tossed out of the window in order to ensure that we get to our final destination, and the film’s structure is astonishingly bad. We open with what is the best moment of Adonis Creed’s professional life — him winning the heavyweight title — and spend the entire film with him as he deals with ennui because he “doesn’t feel like a champion.” He’s nursing the same daddy issues as he was in the first film, his name and the baggage it carries still holding him down, but his reasoning and his attempts to avenge his father’s death in the ring don’t hold water.
Even still, Apollo’s absence still managed to have weight to it in the first film: He was a specter haunting every frame. Here, his death is merely a cheap motivation, meant to drive a wedge between Rocky and Adonis and propel the latter headfirst into Drago the Younger’s fists. The film doesn’t even have the guts to let Adonis take a damn loss in order to have him refocus for the rematch, and as such, his ultimate triumph is without question, and it robs us a chance to see the Dragos spoiled by success and how they’d react to their newfound fame and glory. By the time we take a lengthy second-act break from all of the action in order to watch Adonis and Bianca welcome a new member into their burgeoning family, the film has mistaken easy melodrama for pathos, and the damn pace crawls to a halt. It, sadly, is boring and spins its wheels at every opportunity.
This overdevelopment of its leads has a catastrophic effect on the film’s antagonists, whom are never given so much of a minute to breathe. That’s because Caple and his motley crew o’screenwriters have no idea what to do with the Dragos, nor any idea who they are. Sure, we glean some details from an early speech given by Ivan to Rocky as his son announces his intention to fight Adonis — the loss in ’85 caused Drago to lose everything, including his wife, and his son has born the brunt of that aggression over the years — and a shitty fight promotor (Russell Hornsby) acknowledges the only reason he’s putting this whole charade on is to get pay-per-view buys, thereby exploiting these two for their legacy. But they remain total cyphers, and it’s almost as if the fall of communism never actually happened in the Rocky universe.
No mention is made of how Drago — a state-sponsored steroid freak who literally killed the symbol of American boxing in the ring — managed to survive that collapse. You also might expect that, given reality, the Russian government might be supporting Drago’s son in the rematch with a little extra juice, but Drago the Younger is clean, and the film definitely doesn’t want to, you know, alienate potential international moviegoers for the sake of timely commentary. Even what little shading that they’re given — that the Dragos, much like Flavor Flav, were turned into emotionless husks by the departure of Brigette Nielsen, or the hints that the elder Drago might be an alcoholic — can be easily missed if you’re not paying attention.
Make no mistake, Creed II is bound to scratch the itch of the not-heavily-invested viewer, much like every other Rocky sequel did back in the day. The fights — the main draw, after all — are well-choreographed and they’re exciting enough, though there’s not nearly enough of them to temper out all of the bad drama. Drago, at least, is able to pack one hell of a punch, and you’re able to feel the intensity between Munteanu and Jordan and the power they put behind each blow. The finale is rousing enough, though the high quickly wears off once you realize it’s still got another 10 minutes before the damn thing ends. The few training montages are fun, though they’re not going to be entering any pantheons any time soon, especially as far as this series is concerned.
If you like the core group, you will most likely be pleased with how they are used here, though it’s safe to say that Stallone and company aren’t getting nominated for any Oscars this time around. But for those of us who found Creed to be such a revelation back in 2015, who were moved by the depth of its feeling, and the poetry and skill that a director like Ryan Coogler could bring to even the most routine moments — a first time tasting a Philly Cheesesteak, a sparring session, a small time fight — this sequel is no substitute, and suffers in comparison in every way shape and form. Creed II is just another goddamn Rocky movie, and that’s a miserable shame.