In 2015, Creed revitalised the Rocky series with a fresh, modern take that gave director Ryan Coogler an auteur status and became the most critically acclaimed film in the series since the original. People forget that the Rocky films are excellent dramas at heart and that III–IV’s campiness and V’s poor quality were examples of Stallone dropping the ball creatively as a writer and director, so Rocky Balboa and Creed did good work in getting the series back to its glory days. For the sequel, Coogler dropped out to do Black Panther and the decision was made to revisit IV’s focus on Ivan Drago. Whilst that might sound like a step backwards, Creed II successfully continues the themes of its predecessor to make a satisfying follow-up.
Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has become a heavy-weight champion and is planning on starting a new life with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson). However, the son of Rocky Balboa’s (Slyvester Stallone) former opponent Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), challenges Adonis to a fight. Given how Ivan was the one who killed Adonis’s father Apollo, Adonis faces the challenge of giving into anger, connecting with a disapproving Rocky and dealing with his career or his family.
Though the story’s plotting is predictable and even feels like a minor retread of Rocky III’s arc, what makes Creed II not feel tired is how it updates the formula. It takes the implausible trappings of the sequels and grounds them in a fresh reality, with no melodrama, campiness or unrealistic consequences. It also properly continues Creed’s themes and main storyline without any do-overs or unnecessary additions, basically being the perfect antidote to poor sequels like Sicario 2: Soldado, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
The pacing is breezy and lightweight, admittedly to the film’s detriment. Certain time jumps feel a bit rushed, though this does prevent the story from feeling boring. Like the best Rocky films, what takes the forefront is characterisation. Adonis and Bianca are given a lot of issues to work through in their relationship and one turn is rather uncompromising and bleak. Rocky’s storyline of wanting to reconnect with his family and trying to help Adonis is also very touching and well incorporated, working as a minor, yet good final story for his character. Even the Dragos are given a very relatable and compelling motivation for challenging Adonis, though a couple more scenes with them would have helped.
The acting is as strong as ever, as Michael B Jordan improves upon his prior performance and delivers another fantastic turn, with a hospital and a punching bag scene being highlights. Him and Tessa Thompson still make for an excellent on-screen couple. Sylvester Stallone is still a charming and human presence, keeping the heart that made us love Rocky Balboa in the first place. The surprise is Dolph Lundgren, who manages to successfully humanise a character who was a stereotype of 80’s Cold War Russians whilst still making him feel like the same man.
Newcomer Steven Caple Jr is not as powerful of a filmmaker as Coogler, but he manages to keep the style and tone of Creed very present and injects quite a lot of emotion into the drama. The tone does feel very melancholic and depressing, but it never becomes heavy and dour. The boxing scenes are impactful and violent, so much so that other audience members were gasping and clapping at several moments, due to the well-timed blows and knockdowns, with the final match being an emotional roller-coaster that caps the film off on an intense, yet touching note. Ludwig Goransson’s score is even more memorable, with the main theme now being almost as distinctive to Creed as Gonna Fly Now was to Rocky.
Creed II is on par with Rocky II, being an entry that will not become a classic in the series but is still a strong follow up to the original. Given how Stallone has seemingly retired this character, this is a good send-off for his character and a film that manages to work as an entertaining boxing drama in its own right.