Philadelphia has a special kind of attachment to the Rocky series. For the sixth largest city in the US, its cinema history isn’t nearly as extensive as its size would indicate. Yet, the 1976 original would go on to be both a great look at the city itself at that time, as well a film in its own right. It’s a film that people here from the area hold dear, but it’s also become one of those obnoxiously limited reference points for people not from the area. It would go on to win a Best Picture Oscar that was perhaps undeserved considering the competition, but it shouldn’t take away from the accomplishments of its look at a local boxer given a shot to go the distance against the cocky heavyweight champion of the world.
It launched the career of its writer and star Sylvester Stallone and three years later would lead to a sequel directed by Stallone himself. It traded some of the original’s appeal for a more conventional narrative, the kind that would see Rocky triumph over Apollo Creed this time in the end, but it was still a very entertaining title. Rocky III slid the series into mediocrity (and peak steroids) with the first hints of unintentional comedy slipping in, most famously that beach part of the trademark Rocky montage. Rocky IV is where the series slipped fully from its once lofty perch into the realm of comically bad. Stallone’s performance, which had once shown him perfect for the role, became increasingly a parody of itself and the continuing search for bigger, badder villains led to Stallone defeating the towering, murderous, badass line spewing, Russian science-enhanced Ivan Drago played by Dolph Lundgren and winning the Cold War. That trend continued into Rocky V (which saw the return of original director John G. Avildsen) which until its final “touch me and I’ll sue” moments was merely dull and bad, briefly blipping up to delightful mess.
For sixteen years as the series lay fallow, the series lost a lot of its luster and Stallone’s career collapsing over time didn’t help. Rocky Balboa improbably managed to bring the series back some of that respectability, giving the series a proper fifth entry and bringing some seriousness that the later entries had started to lose. Creed however is what made the series relevant again. As a passion project from a director (Ryan Coogler) coming off the great Fruitvale Station and starring Michael B. Jordan, the talented star of that film and a number of other projects, it had a ton of promise that it managed to deliver on, finally delivering a worthy follow up to the original film. He also reestablished the more grounded tone with a modern day view of the city. The news that Coogler would not be returning for the sequel while not shocking considering that he got the Black Panther gig and Stallone is not getting any younger, was disappointing considering the life he had brought back to the series, but less encouraging was the promise that the series was going to be retreading the Rocky IV storyline, bringing in Ivan Drago’s son as the new villain.
Much in the way the original Rocky ended with its lead losing, Creed ended in much the same way with him losing the light heavyweight title, but ever since, Adonis Creed has been on a hot streak, racking up a string of wins. He’s now a heavyweight for unexplained (albeit obvious future related plot reasons) and opening the film fighting to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Anyone whose familiar with boxing knows that becoming the champion is only the start as you are now a target for everyone seeking to knock you off the top. Prompted by an opportunistic promoter (in other words a promoter) played by The Hate U Give‘s Russell Hornsby, the first person to challenge him is none other than the Ukrainian Victor Drago.
Since the events of Rocky IV, Ivan Drago has lost his country, his respect, and his wife. He’s devoted his life since to training his son up into someone who can bring him a measure of redemption. He’s extremely tough on Victor who doesn’t understand why he’d want the approval of all the people who turned their back on him. Victor’s raw but giant and powerful like his dad and they are both compelling sorts even as the script asks Lundgren to call back to his “I must break you” far too many times. Ivan shows no remorse for the in ring killing of Adonis’s father Apollo and just views it as all a part of the sport. Their story exists in parallel to Adonis’s but could almost be its own film and interestingly enough, Ivan seems to act as if it already that way. The Dragos are far more fascinating than their less prominent screen time would suggest, and Victor is almost begging for an Undisputed III: Redemption style film centered around him.
The title character, who has a loving fiancée played by Tessa Thompson and the belt both his father and trainer both held, still is left feeling insecure. Both his dad’s success and his death loom large with his desire to take revenge for his father met by the feelings that he can’t be seen turning down a chance to avenge his father. Rocky on the other hand is still filled with guilt over not throwing in the towel when he was in Apollo’s corner and is not eager to see another Creed go through that again.
Stallone’s storyline isn’t nearly as interesting, but it feels just as, if not more prominent this time around. He went from dealing with a cancer he was unwilling to fight, the loss of everyone he’s known, the ravages of time, etc. to deciding if he should call his son and acting as a generic mentor figure to Creed. The film as a whole retreads a lot of the same ground as the previous films, with new director Steven Caple Jr. (The Land and the decent short A Different Tree) filtering stories of the sequels through the aesthetic of established by Coogler. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that here as one views a Rocky film expecting a certain formula, but while Creed felt like a breath of fresh air and step towards a new future, Creed II feels like a film retreating backwards towards the realm of Rocky Balboa with Stallone’s guiding hand dominating more.
The fight scenes are fine, succeeding most at creating some visceral moments of pain, though heavily reliant on quick cutting and lacking anything too memorable. With the story more spread out and there’s far less of a feel for any city this time out and less of a distinctive one for the movie itself. The acting from Jordan and Thompson is unsurprisingly the backbone the movie succeeds on, but as I indicated previously, the Dragos (Dolph Lundgren and Florian Munteanu) both turning in absorbing performances of their own. Stallone is still Stallone. It’s still great to see him out there in the role and he holds his own just fine in a talented cast that also includes Wood Harris and Phylicia Rashad, but there’s nothing special about his performance this time out.
Creed II may not live up to the first Creed, but I don’t think anyone could have expected it to given the circumstances coming in. Instead it’s a satisfying installment in the series that exceeded my more modest expectations going in.