Whether you’re a fan of The Sweet Science or not, the name Rocky Balboa (portrayed by Sylvester Stallone) is likely the first name that springs to mind in any discussion of boxing. The 1976 drama Rocky first introduced audiences to the Italian Stallion and went on to earn seven of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated, utterly changing the course of sports films. After six films, the Rocky series seemed to have run its course with 2006’s Rocky Balboa, a film that seemed set on sending the character Sylvester Stallone had been playing for forty years into a lovely retirement. While there’s no keeping a good fighter out of the ring, new blood was absolutely necessary to keep the world of Rocky going and that was found in introducing the previously unknown son of beloved character Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers): Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). Offering a tale that’s as much about closing the doors on the past and as it is about blazing a new trail forward, the second film in the Creed series and the eighth overall shows that there’s nothing stopping the newly resurging series from getting back on top.
After the events of Creed, Adonis is really feeling his stride. His talent is recognized outside of the legacy created by his deceased father, his relationship with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is going strong, he’s finally feeling close to his adopted mother Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), and his trainer/mentor Rocky is in good health. But as any fighter knows, the moment you think you’re on top, someone’s going to come gunning to take you down. What Adonis doesn’t expect is for the next contender to be Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring. Given the weighted history between the Drago-Creed-Balboa families, the contest for boxing supremacy between the new generation of fighters feels less like standard competition and more like the arrival of the inevitable.
Seeing five names under the writing credits section of a film is often cause for alarm. Usually, it’s a sign of too many cooks, too many ideas and is a harbinger of an incredibly messy cinematic experience. That is absolutely not the case with Creed II. Instead, through the work of Cheo Hodari Coker, Creed director Ryan Coogler, Sascha Penn, Juel Taylor, and Sylvester Stallone, Creed II is not only a provocative singular story, it also manages to seamlessly integrate the past into the present in a way that sets up a brand new future. For new fans coming in with Coogler and Jordan’s 2015 film, this direct sequel moves all of the characters forward in a way that feels organic to who they are and what they struggle with internally. For long time fans, the sight of the Dragos shoots an immediate chill into the air, giving any choice any of the characters make far more emotional weight since the painful the loss of Apollo still sits with the characters and audience members alike. While the idea to bring the Dragos back seems like emotional violence unto us all, the first Creed set the stage for the past being an unrelenting force that we each must grapple with and make peace with. Seeing as all parties possess an amount of unfinished business due to the shared tragedy, bringing Adonis face-to-face with the Dragos is far less emotional tomfoolery and more so the next inevitable challenge for Adonis to face.
One thing perceptive audience members will notice is that while Creed II is under new direction, the film rarely feels like it. More like a composer playing the melody of another musician, Steven Caple, Jr.’s, deft touch ensures that there’s nothing obviously disparate about either Creed film; a particular necessity considering one is organically continuing off the other. Though the circumstances for the characters change, there exists a sameness from one film to another which elevates the great successes, as well as the terrible falls which the characters endure. To be clear, Caple, Jr., is in no way replicating the work of Coogler but is carrying on the directorial and narrative style set forth from the entire Rocky oeuvre. Whether shooting in the lavish home of Mary Anne Creed, the cold of the Russia, or the streets of Philly, Caple, Jr., maintains a certain visual timelessness which supports the stillness the characters themselves struggle to escape due to memory. It’s an incredibly heavy lift to keep the feel of Creed II modern while also making it feel as though time is standing still, yet the results here are so on-target that they’re arresting at times, even to the point where the audience audibly reacts to the inherent emotionality present in the narrative, which Caple, Jr., amplifies with simple details of staging.
From the ding of the first bell to the echo of the last, Creed II is not only a strong entry in the Rocky series, but is also a stirring drama that utilizes every inch of emotional real estate to enormous effect. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the entire cast delivers performances which are (forgive the pun) absolute knockouts. Jordan, Stallone, Thompson, and Rashad provide Creed II’s emotional center, at least as far as the audience is concerned, offering performances indicative of their collective power. The big surprise may come – not just in the deep cuts Creed II references in dialogue or actors who reprise beloved roles – but in the form of the depiction of the Dragos, individuals who could easily be cast as the villains, yet are given some truly wonderful material to indicate just how stuck they’ve felt in the past. Munteanu especially deserves incredible credit for the way he conveys multitudes with scant dialogue and purposeful physical movements. Though the script makes choices which suggest the mightiest of doors are being closed so that Adonis, and maybe Balboa, may be at rest, there’s no telling where the story could go from here, and that’s undeniably exciting.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.