Creed II: The Formula Works
Matching Ryan Coogler’s reboot/continuation of the Rocky legacy was always going to be a tall order.
Hell, it’s an impossible one. Coogler took a well-worn franchise and made its seventh installment arguably its best. His reinvention of the franchise was truly remarkable. He made it younger, faster, and blacker without giving up any of the resonance and historical connection to the previous six films. It was an extraordinary success at the box office and with critics – even scoring Sly an Oscar nomination as the now weathered Rocky Balboa.
So, Creed II is not as good as Creed. Let’s just get that out of the way.
But it's probably about 80-85% as good. Which means it's still pretty damn good. All the strengths that Coogler added to the series are still effectively in play here.
Michael B is setting himself up as this generation's Jordan of reference. It’s kind of an underdeveloped story, but between the success of Creed II and Black Panther, Jordan is having one incredible year. He invests his Adonis Creed with heart and power, as well as a notable vulnerability. It must also be said that if any human ever developed a more perfect body, I have yet to see it.
While Creed II is centered on Jordan, like its predecessor, it doesn’t forget to build on genuine, lived-in personal relationships. Adonis and Bianca (played by the always wonderful Tessa Thompson) are a great match/update of the Rocky and Adrian dynamic. They feel like real people with real problems beyond just the big fight.
Adonis and Rocky are in full-on Rocky/Mickey mode in this second Creed film. Rocky is reluctant to put Adonis in a situation where he can get hurt. The orphaned Adonis ends up feeling like he’s been left twice when Rocky steps away from training him for his fight with Viktor Drago, the son of the man who killed his father in the ring.
In a lot of ways, Creed II is a non-cartoonish mash up of Rocky III & IV. In III Mickey begged Rock not to fight Clubber Lang. He does, takes a beating, and comes back to win after accepting an unorthodox training regimen. The connection to IV is more obvious. It’s amazing to think that 36 years after Rocky went to Russia to take on the entire Soviet Union, that nation is once again America’s greatest foe. You can’t plan serendipity, but there it is.
The Ivan/Viktor Drago relationship is where the movie sets itself apart from those two films. Ivan is embittered. His life fell apart after losing to Rocky. He was shunned by his country and his wife left him alone to raise their son, a son who he has built upon blocks of anger. What’s terrific here – unlike Rocky IV – the Dragos are real characters, not just symbols like the previous film.
Viktor is a mean, angry vicious cuss, but he has reasons. A hard-driving father trying to live vicariously through him and being abandoned by his mother being the top two. What’s refreshing here is that underneath all that anger and resentment is a real person. In Rocky IV, Ivan was basically a big Russian Bot. Viktor is a bruised little boy in the shell of a vengeful Greek god.
It can’t go unmentioned that Dolph Lundgren is really good here. Not only as a physical presence, but as an actor. Yes, you read that right. Dolph Lundgren can act.
Now, what I’ve described here in terms of plot, probably sounds a lot like other Rocky films you have seen. I mean, I’ve referenced them directly, right. And it’s true, all the tropes and clichés of every other film in the series are in place. But here’s the thing.
They. All. Work.
New director Steven Caple Jr. hits all the beats while adding to the deeper resonance of the previous film. He also shows significant restraint. The famous Bill Conti Rocky theme is not heard or even alluded to until nearly the very end.
And when it comes, the shivers return to your spine, your heart misses that same beat, and you find that you are gonna fly…now.