After his close loss to ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlon, Adonis (Donnie) Creed goes on a run of wins that take him to the World Heavyweight title – the title once held by his legendary father. Although at the summit of his profession, he still feels a gnawing lack of validation, and remains cowed by the shadow of the great Apollo Creed. Could a match with the son of his father’s vanquisher, Ivan Drago, be the answer?
2015’s Creed was a revelation. Effectively, the seventh Rocky film, it brought a completely fresh approach, a terrific new lead character, all shepherded by a fresh voice in the guise of future Black Panther director Ryan Cooglar. It put a bow on Rocky Balboa’s story, allowing him to make amends for the one big regret of his life: the death of rival Apollo Creed, and it finally proved that Rocky could move on from life as a professional boxer. Sylvester Stallone received, in addition, a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It seemed the perfect end to a series that had started nearly 40 years before, in 1976.
With Cooglar moving over to Marvel Studios, and the reins being headed over to Steven Caple Jr. – a man with a single, little known, feature on his CV – there were understandable fears over where a sequel might go. These fears were only exacerbated with the casting of Florian Munteanu as Viktor (son of Ivan) Drago. It appeared that we were going to be taken directly from what was a Rocky analogue with the first Creed movie, to a rehash of Rocky IV. It should be remembered that the 1976 original won the Academy Award for Best Picture. An inferior, yet tonally similar, and still excellent sequel was released three years later, with a third film in 1982. By the time of 1985’s Rocky IV, all connection to the roots of the series had been lost. Rocky Balboa had become a quasi-superhero, impervious to pain, coming up against ever more improbable boss-level fights. The fourth film is barely 90 minutes long, feels like mostly montages, and ends with Rocky effectively ending the Cold War by making a nice-but-dumb speech after his fight. Fun though that all is, a rehash of that, merely one film on from the first awards-worthy film in the series for decades, would have felt like a betrayal.
To get some negatives out of the way first, Creed II lacks the freshness of its predecessor. It takes – roughly – the format of Rocky III, the tone of Rocky II and the themes of Rocky IV. So it is derivative. Viktor Drago is given virtually nothing to do outside of the ring – other than take a good deal of bullying from his bitter father; and the film could, easily, lose 15 minutes from its second act. With Stallone back on writing duties, dialogue occasionally slips back into some of the clichés found in earlier entries. Whereas in the 2015 film trainers gave actual, practical advice between rounds: here we are back to the homilies and platitudes of the Rocky IV “This is your whole life here!” standard.
That said, the flaws are all balanced by the fact that they are never uniform throughout; by the final fight we are hearing more of the kind of between rounds dialogue that would be typical of a real fight. The fights themselves lack any of the originality found in the extraordinary single-take entry we saw from Cooglar, but they are visceral in a way few of the fights have been since the very earliest days of the series. Much of that is due to the performance of the leading man. Creed was Stallone’s film: this film belongs to Michael B. Jordan. Rarely have we seen an actor play pain and confusion so well. His pain builds from the inside, rather than being represented solely by cuts and swelling; knock-downs are physically traumatic events here. His eyes communicate when he is lost for what to do next, and that creates a real unease in watching all of the bouts. The faux-HBO Pay-per-View format is gone, although we retain their commentary team, and the arenas featured are shot intimately, in a way that really does reduce scale, leaves Donnie looking more isolated, and less like a man at the summit of something extraordinary.
As for Rocky himself, Stallone plays him even more aged and broken down, but it avoids any of the standard clichés of world weariness: he remains the three-dimensional character we have been seeing since 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Wisely, the film also avoids the temptation to lapse into melodrama by having his illness from the last film return – a genuine fear going in. The tone is simply not the cartoonish take of Rocky IV: the fight in Russia features a partisan, pro-Drago crowd, but a crowd of ordinary people, not cartoon villains over-selling a ludicrous threat level. Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) is portrayed very effectively as a man whose life was ruined by his defeat to Rocky in 1985. Where during his previous appearance he was played as an emotionless robot; here he is simply bitter, and broken; and all reprises of his iconic lines have meaning and reflect a character gently goading the champion and his mentor to force the direction he wants.
Donnie’s motivations for fighting are better explored than in the similar Rocky III, where Rocky was simply goaded by Mr T’s Clubber Lang; even if there are some superficial similarities. Finally, the film is faithful to the tone of the 2015 entry, by continuing to honour the in-universe legacy of Apollo Creed. In the original run of films, the need continually to raise the level of threat left Creed Sr. looking like merely the first boss level. The 2015 film corrected this by making it very clear that Apollo was simply the finest all-around boxer that Rocky ever faced and – and this was key – better (at least in talent level) than Rocky. For the Creed series to work, and to land its themes, it is vital that Apollo be amongst the absolute greatest of all time. At one point in this film, Donnie is looking at his WBC title belt, on it is a picture of Apollo where, on a real world version of that belt, sits a photo of Muhammad Ali. As the original film took inspiration from 1975’s Muhammad Ali vs Chuck Wepner fight, this is precisely as it should be.
The film business is, like most others, entirely dependent upon financial return. As such, very few film series really finish where, artistically, they should. They either do insufficient business to continue the story, or they go way past their best years to continue to chase box office returns. Having taken a risk by producing a new entry after the appropriate ending of Creed, Creed II lands a closing set of scenes that is as satisfying and perfect as any potentially franchise ending film since perhaps Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There is a lesson in this for anyone paying attention at MGM.
If this is the end – and it really now should be – then we can say only thank you to Sylvester Stallone, and everyone else involved in the Rocky saga, thank you for over 40 years of wonderful memories.