This Thanksgiving, everyone is back for ‘Creed II” except for wunderkind writer/director Ryan Coogler. While it would be absurd to say that his skills aren’t missed, luckily he was able to set up a sturdy enough foundation with the characters and the talented actors who play them to help this sequel succeed. Sylvester Stallone may have been along for the ride in the first film just playing Rocky Balboa as the aging mentor to Michael B. Jordan’s son of Apollo, but for this second part, he actively helped shepherd the story by submitting the first draft of the screenplay. He also played a bigger role in supporting this film’s novice director hire, Steven Caple Jr., who cut his teeth on a few television projects before being promoted based on Coogler’s recommendation. Sly’s fingerprints are all over ‘Creed II’ with storylines straight from his own work on the ‘Rocky’ franchise, most notably the jingoistic ‘Rocky IV’.
In arguably one of the most popular yet most vapid entries in the series, ‘Rocky IV’ introduced Dolph Lungren’s Ivan Drago, a Soviet super-athlete designed to ‘crush’ and ‘break’ his American adversary. He was little more than a one-note representation of the very real Cold War threat so often pervading pop culture in the 80s, but he did serve a vital role in bringing the first ‘Creed’ to fruition. Apollo’s death at his hands in an exposition match early in that film not only provided the specter that hangs so heavily over Jordan’s illegitimate son, Adonis (‘Donnie’), but also the guilt felt by Stallone’s Balboa that would drive him to both protect and in turn, train young Creed. This table-setting allows for the natural conflict at the heart of the ‘Creed’ sequel in that it turns out that Drago also has a son who he’s been training for this moment, yet this fighter named Viktor (played by the burly Florian Munteanu) is borne out of a hardscrabble life, pressured by his father to erase his own disgrace in defeat all those decades ago. In one area of superiority over the first film, ‘Creed II’ builds a more nuanced opponent, one driven by a grizzled, yet visibly pained paternal presence, a haunted, angry Lungren with an internal fire. His performance is far from the robotic, yet iconic previous incarnation of the character, a stark contrast to Stallone’s comforting presence.
Initially ‘Creed II’ goes through the motions of a typical ‘Rocky’ sequel. Adonis ascends to champion, gets engaged to Bianca (Tessa Thompson), they are expecting a child, and life seems like it’s going according to plan. Out of nowhere emerges Viktor Drago to challenge the champ by playing to his sensitive ego, no one wants Donnie to fight him, he and Rocky ‘break-up’, etc. It doesn’t help that these rote scenes are written and staged a bit flatly, although the capable actors, both young and old keep their heads above water. Once the inevitable happens though, the movie morphs into something much better. Jordan continues to display his mastery over playing proud men that can be their own worst enemies, and Thompson does good things with storylines and scenes with both Jordan and the incomparable Phylicia Rashad (back as Apollo’s widow and adoptive mother to Adonis) – as these young actors flourish, Caple’s direction also seems to thrive, and the movie really gains momentum. The only principle with considerably less to do this time around is Rocky himself, but it would’ve been almost impossible to upstage his deservedly Oscar-nominated performance in the previous movie. As it stands, his Balboa serves as a reliable calming and guiding presence for the characters and the audience. There is nothing in ‘Creed II’ that can truly rival the highs of the first, but it can safely stand next to Coogler’s masterful work, a film that cemented him and his costar Jordan as artists to watch . . .
Directed By: Steven Caple Jr.
Written By: Sylvester Stallone, Juel Taylor; Story By: Cheo Hodari Coker
Running Time: 130 min.
* * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- B