Creed II ramps up the nostalgia, pitting the sons of Ivan Drago and Apollo Creed against one another in a story that's as much about family and redemption as it is boxing.
2015’s Creed was the best kind of surprise. What seemed destined to be a sad resurrection of a franchise already long past its prime turned out to be a benchmark moment for sports movies, combining heart-pumping pugilism with the same kind of tender romance that underscored and grounded the original Rocky. In the lead as Adonis ‘Donnie' Creed, Michael B. Jordan delivered a fearless performance laden with sincere vulnerability and irresistible charisma, whilst Stallone’s reserved turn reminded audiences that beneath his tough guy exterior remains a fine and gifted actor possessed of a deep emotional range. Those same qualities and performances are again present in Creed II, however the story behind them unfortunately fails to match the power and drive of its predecessor.
The setup is certainly juicy enough. Viktor Drago, son of Ivan - the man who killed Creed’s father in the ring during Rocky IV - arrives in Philadelphia with his father and challenges the newly-crowned heavyweight champion of the world to a fight; a chance to ‘rewrite history’ as Creed tells his mother. Dread, however, fills the heart of Rocky, whose guilt over Apollo Creed’s death remains a constant companion and tormentor. Refusing to train Donnie, he and his protege hence part ways until a tragedy of sorts brings them back together and it's time for another classic training montage. Outside of the ring, Thompson gives Creed II some much-needed personal drama in another passionate performance imbued with a great deal of heart, however she’s disappointingly relegated to a secondary role throughout.
Directed this time round by Steven Caple Jr., Creed II is clearly at its strongest in the ring, where its glorious combination of POV camerawork and sumptuous sound design contributes to an almost uncomfortably visceral, bone-crunching experience. Slow-motion, too, is used more sparingly than usual for this genre, reserved for the truly devastating body blows and upper-cuts. You truly ‘feel’ the hits in this film, especially those delivered to the ribs where the accompanying ‘snap' sound effect pretty much forces you to hug yourself tightly for comfort.
The writing, however, is notably weaker in this sequel, poorer for Ryan Coogler’s absence save for an EP credit. The screenplay, in part written by Stallone, still has its moments, but lacks the subtlety, nuance and - above all else - restraint that helped elevate the original Creed into something special. There are too many lines that sound like they were ripped straight from a fortune cookie (“It may not seem like it now, but this is more than just a fight"), and the periodic narration from the TV and ringside commentators that added so much authenticity to the original is, this time round, downright abysmal. Countering this, thankfully, are some fine repeat performances from Stallone, Williams and Thompson, whose chemistry and closeness continue to positively sizzle on screen. The joy of seeing Dolph Lundgren return as Drago, too, is a highlight, but one sadly short lived as he's given little more to do than scowl and grizzle from first scene to last.
Similarly, the most interesting character in Creed II is also its least explored. Viktor Drago is an irresistible combination of brute physical force and deep-seeded emotional turmoil, neatly packaged inside the 6-foot-4 mountain of muscle that is Romanian boxer and fitness model Florian Munteanu. Abandoned by his mother, weaponised by his father and ignored by his country until a string of victories brings him into the light, Viktor’s most compelling fight is the one unseen. As he and his father are welcomed back into Russian high society, the young Drago finds no satisfaction in his celebrity, acutely aware of the fair-weather nature of the fans and disgusted by his father’s seemingly instant compliance with those who rejected him (including Viktor’s mother). Munteanu is given little room to explore this, however, reduced mostly to an action movie henchman caricature. Even then, the actor almost covertly sneaks in some emotional subtlety, his eyes betraying his character’s uncertainty as his father barks orders to ‘break’ Creed and his fans bay for blood.
Indeed, why they fight is at the heart of both fighters’ story in Creed II. Driven by reasons that at first seem clear, they soon find ambiguity and doubt needling their way into their respective, troubled psyches. By the finale there’s almost a sense of soldiers on a battlefield, bloodied and beaten, yet ultimately more like brothers than enemies, sent to destroy one another at the behest of those safe behind the lines for little more than money or ego. As much a father/son story as it is a boxing one, Creed II’s tale of family and redemption may not match the quality of the original, but it remains a worthy and compelling sequel.