In some ways, Creed II feels like a regression from its predecessor, a step back into the shadows of the Rocky franchise.
Where 2015’s Creed used that legacy to forge something new, Creed II leans hard on Rocky nostalgia, rehashing Rocky IV‘s Creed vs. Drago fight through their sons.
It’s a premise that smells more of a studio conference room than of the characters’ blood, sweat, and tears, and the beats feel so familiar that a sports commentator actually says, “Rocky knows better than anyone how this same story plays out.”
And yet, when Creed II is in the thick of it, it mostly works. It’s not quite as smart as Creed, or quite as beautiful, and it doesn’t have as much depth or nuance or texture. But it’s got enough to deliver something satisfying and sweet. Provided, anyway, that you’re already invested in this story from the first Creed and the other Rocky movies.
Returning stars Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, and, of course, Sylvester Stallone inhabit these characters like they’ve never stopped living them, so it doesn’t take much for them to win back the affections they earned in the last film. That comes in very handy when the script compels them toward confounding decisions.
The script (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) retains some of the first film’s knack for finding personality in the everyday, like Rocky’s frustration over a broken street lamp. An early declaration of love, from Adonis to Bianca, might be one of the most romantic movie moments of the year, precisely because it feels so low-key and lived-in—not like a Hollywood romance, even though that’s exactly what it is.
Into this comfortable world come the Dragos, father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) and son Viktor (Florian Muntenau), who’ve apparently been waiting decades for a do-over of the battle that left Apollo Creed dead in the ring. That they’re cartoonishly determined villains comes as no surprise, considering Ivan’s characterization in that movie and Creed II‘s overall lack of subtlety.
What’s unexpected is the odd sympathy the film engenders for them, particularly Viktor. It’s made clear from the opening scene that his life has been completely defined by his father’s loss that day, to an even greater extent than Adonis’ has been. His emotional arc throughout Creed II makes for a bittersweet complement to Adonis’ own ambivalence about their shared history.
Like its hero, Creed II‘s strength is its heart.
Plus, Viktor’s emotional journey has the benefit of making sense, unlike his so much of rival’s. Creed II‘s most exasperating failing is its inability to justify why Adonis is so easily baited into a fight that everyone warns him is a bad idea, on behalf of a father he barely knew, against a total stranger who himself had nothing to do with that deadly match.
But it doesn’t wind up mattering as much as it probably should. When Adonis takes a punch, Jordan’s acting, Steven Caple Jr.’s direction, and Ludwig Göransson’s score converge to put us in that moment. When Bianca watches, terrified, from the crowd, we’re right beside her, clutching our chests with worry. When Rocky trains Adonis for the next battle, his cheers are our cheers.
By the time Creed II enters its climax, we’re all in, even if we’re still not entirely sure how we got here. Like its hero, this film’s true strength lies in its heart—it has so much of it, it extends sympathy even to its villains.
But Creed II could stand to learn another lesson from Adonis, as well: It really and truly is time for this franchise to move beyond its legacy, and start making a name of its own.