2015’s CREED was a risky move, especially after ROCKY creator and caretaker Sylvester Stallone had successfully resurrected his character ten years prior for ROCKY BALBOA to say goodbye and allow the series to retire with some dignity. But, like the character of Rocky himself, CREED proved to be the underdog we never saw coming. As great of an ending as ROCKY BALBOA proved to be, CREED was an even greater reintroduction of the character to a new generation, finding an organic way to reboot the franchise without stripping it of its identity. And now, CREED’s own sequel has arrived.
Existing on a very shaky premise – the son of fighter Apollo Creed versus the son of the fighter who killed him — CREED II acknowledges enough about ROCKY IV to build a foundation for a story while still successfully steering its conflict into legitimately dramatic territory. ROCKY IV, a.k.a. America: The Movie, has long since been one of the more favored ROCKY movies because it filtered the spirit of Rocky through a heightened and cartoony pro-America conflict even while stooping to lowest-common denominator feel-good status in the process. That CREED II manages to build such a poignant conflict with such emotional weight off such a stupid development in the ROCKY series was nothing anyone could have ever seen coming — let alone it being something to celebrate.
CREED II ranks as the ROCKY II of this new franchise – not nearly as good as the original, but good enough to stand on its own two feet and justify its existence. As a whole, the ROCKY series maintains not because every film was blemish-free, but because of the series’ spirit, and what it represents. CREED II ably carries forth with that spirit, as Adonis Creed’s (Michael B. Jordan) family grows, causing the fighter to redefine exactly what it is he’s fighting for. Structurally, the events of CREED II’s story feel a little more predictable: you can forecast the various conflicts that will inevitably arise before they actually do. By now, the franchise has a very familiar pattern: dream, train, fight, lose fight, lose identity, find your identity, train harder, and win (or lose) fight. CREED was unique enough to feel like a fresh take on a standard sports movie. CREED II, meanwhile, is certainly well made, but not enough that it overcomes that familiarity.
What’s lacking the most in this entry is the emotional connection the audience shares with its characters. That’s not to say that CREED II lacks heart, because that’s not at all the case — even the worst ROCKY sequels had heart — but there’s nothing here that compares to, say, Rocky railing against a boxing commission denying his desire for one last fight, or a training montage that juxtaposes Adonis Creed running down Philly streets with Rocky in a hospital room receiving chemotherapy. (A deleted scene included on this release that sees Rocky giving a eulogy at fellow fighter Spider Rico’s funeral would have beefed up CREED II’s emotional core considerably and it’s a shame it wasn’t included.)
Every ROCKY entry has done what so few mainstream movies have been able to do: transcend being movies and feel like events. As such, a ROCKY movie, and now, a CREED movie, has to feel big. It has to recognize that its audience hasn’t just come for the movie, but for the experience, and they know that said experience demands the inclusion of certain series iconography. The city of Philadelphia, for one, or the front porch of Rocky’s modest row home, or even his crooked fedora—all these little things defined what a ROCKY movie was. Director Steven Caple Jr. (a colleague of CREED director Ryan Coogler, who recommended him for the helm after moving on to BLACK PANTHER) recognizes this as well, just as we recognize that any ROCKY movie has to feel cinematic. As Ivan Drago and his fighter son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) stand on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and look on in amusement as passersby take photos with the Rocky statue, or do the famous run up the stairs, Caple is banking on the audience feeling territorial toward Philadelphia, the home of Rocky, the ultimate underdog. Though the level of villainy is far down compared to ROCKY IV, we know that the Dragos are, essentially, the villains, and as the camera pans around to capture them from the back as they look out over the city they hope to dominate, those chills you’re feeling are very real. That’s why we’re here.
As expected by now, CREED II offers an array of excellent performances, from Jordan’s Adonis to Stallone’s weathered Rocky, even to an understated but evocative take on Ivan Drago played by a returning Dolph Lundgren. The aging action star has made a career playing the hero in direct-to-video action movies, so to see him getting the chance to act instead of perform is a rare treat. Wisely, CREED II uses him sparingly and keeps his dialogue at a minimum (half of which is Russian), maintaining ROCKY IV’s mythical qualities of Ivan Drago’s Frankensteinian persona.
If a ROCKY/CREED fan were to have mockingly predicted the plot of CREED II knowing that Stallone would be writing it, what eventually came to pass wouldn’t have been that far off. (Jokes abound that CREED III will see Adonis fighting the son of Clubber Lang.) But Stallone, who continues to surprise in the franchise he knows better than anyone else, has helped usher in one more respectable entry in the face of a gimmicky plot.
CREED II boasts a very solid, stable, and bright image. There is a somewhat subdued color scheme to the film, but otherwise, there are moments where colors explode — mostly during the fight scenes. Skin tones are realistic and textures mostly defined. CREED II contains the best cinematography in any film all year, and it thankfully looks fantastic in this visual presentation.
The audio presentation is also a winner; dialogue is crisp, clear, and easily understandable. (Even Stallone!) Returning Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson revisits some of his themes (which were a spin on those by original composer Bill Conti) to create a score that is cinematically stirring, but peppered with hip-hop influences in ways that never feel exploitative or commercial.
Five featurettes and a handful of deleted scenes comprise the sole special features. Once again, there is no audio commentary, which seems to be a dying trend. “From Father to Son, Blood Runs Hot” looks at on-screen relationships as well as those between real-life father-and-son boxers. “The Rocky Legacy,” as somewhat awkwardly hosted by Dolph Lundgren, looks at the series’ place in movie history (while wisely eschewing ROCKY V.) Other featurettes include “The Women of CREED II” and “Finding the Authentic.”
CREED II is a welcome addition to the series, and, in spite of Stallone’s threat to retire the character again (this time for good), it probably won’t be the last word on Adonis Creed. Here’s hoping that CREED director Ryan Coogler returns to helm the third (and final?) entry and complete his intended trilogy.
Tags: Bill Conti, Blu-ray, Boxing, Carl Weathers, Charles Winkler, Cheo Hodari Coker, David Winkler, dolph lundgren, Drama, Florian Munteanu, Irwin Winkler, Juel Taylor, Kevin King Templeton, Kramer Morgenthau, Ludwig Göransson, Michael B. Jordan, Philadelphia, Phylicia Rashad, Ryan Coogler, Sascha Penn, Sequels, Steven Caple Jr., Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, William Chartoff, Wood Harris