“If he dies, he dies,” said Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in Rocky IV, arguably the finest entry in the series outside the all-time classic original. It was a film that captured the essence of its time; the ultra-machismo, the air-punching music, a self-aware corniness, post-Cold War observations. But Creed II, the follow-up to 2015’s acclaimed spin-off, is a much different beast from its ancestor.
After Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) becomes world champion, Drago, the man who killed Creed’s father, and his brutish son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu) challenge him to a fight. Against Rocky’s (Sylvester Stallone) better judgement, Creed takes the bout, sparking repercussions that will affect his life at home with Bianca (Tessa Thompson).
Lundgren’s mournful icon opens the picture, from the frosty-blue filtered snowscape of Kiev, awakening his boy for what we can only assume a long, hard day of montage-worthy training. It’s not long before we see the terrifyingly hulkish Viktor, deftly handled by Munteanu, in action in the ring. One thing is established fast; Viktor shares one huge trait with his dad – a lack of compassion.
Director Steven Caple Jr, taking the gloves from Ryan Coogler, plays a tension-raising little game – we’re reacquainted with Creed and co fairly quickly (in a sneakily modest one-take). Rocky says to him: “Are you here to prove something to other people, or prove something to yourself?” The triumphant spirit that helped give the first film a surprising strength is back, but Caple Jr is keen to remind you that there’s definitely a storm coming, and there’s only so far a good man can go against someone “who was raised in hate”.
Stallone earned himself an Oscar-nom for the (formerly) titular role, and here he’s on similarly excellent form. There’s a really interesting narrative in play between him and Drago throughout; the latter broke things in Rocky “that ain’t ever been fixed”, but he also lost everything and was exiled by his wife – and country – following his homeland defeat. Lundgren is fantastic here, bringing a cautious vulnerability and real, hard vindictive streak in a fractured, immensely satisfying performance that makes these two titans meeting again feel more than an exercise in cheap memories.
The moral conflict is meaty; Rocky is against Creed fighting Viktor because of the past, because of how dangerous he knows Drago’s son is and, obviously, because he can’t face watching the son of the man whose life ended at the hands of his Russian foe, also die. But Rocky fought Drago out of guilt, so if Creed wants to fight his son after Drago has the brass neck to challenge him, can he be blamed? It’s a tale as old as time – testosterone firing on all cylinders. Thankfully, writers Sascha Pem, Juel Taylor and also Stallone keep the story rooted in harsh reality; Creed II is more of a story about finding oneself in the shadow of our parents, and the need to let the past go to become who you really want to be. That, and some tellingly obvious comments on toxic masculinity, takes this a little further than more surface-level genre efforts.
Thompson and Jordan are a fabulous duo that endures a heart-wrenching plight – the writing in this regard excels at not romanticizing their lives (aside from the dreamy L.A flat they acquire just like *finger snap*). With the exception of a small number of truly moving moments, their narrative is filled with foregone conclusions. In fact, the film itself is excessively formulaic, almost going exactly the way any relatively clued-up moviegoer would predict.
But that’s the thing; Creed II only works if you’ve got skin in the game, if you have more than a floating investment. You need to care and believe in the stakes and the people. If you don’t, the clichés will hit harder, but if you do, there’s much to be enjoyed here as both a series veteran and newbie.
The fight scenes are intense and muscular, shot with a firm hand and never, as the trap less adept efforts fall into, disorientating to enjoy. However, the choreography is miles behind decades-earlier movies; not just Rocky, but also Raging Bull, or even Warrior in 2011. There’s a certain lack of distance afforded to the viewer, always cinematically in amongst it instead of taking a step back. In a boxing picture, that would seem like a detrimental flaw – but Caple Jr is slick enough to carry it off.
Returning to compose is Ludwig Göransson, who separates this work even further from its family tree, weaving the soundtrack with a hip, modernized flare that rarely taps into that classic theme (oh boy when it does, though), exhibiting a rare confidence in the culture of sequels. The music makes for a thrilling accompaniment to Kramer Morgenthau’s raw, evocative cinematography; a natural at both establishing the emotional range of an intimate environment and accenting a brilliant montage. A little more recognition of its roots would have carried it that extra stretch (don’t wait on Drago saying that famous line), but this is a cool, unruffled entry in a franchise that would be welcomed back again.
Gripping and poignant, Creed II marks the humble passing of the mantle. Just need Mr. T’s son for next time.
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu