Creed II or Rocky VIII … whatever you want to call it; the subtitle may as well read “Deja Vu”. Following the success of Creed (2015) – itself a sequel and revitalisation of the Rocky series – we return to one of the most enduring and reliable movies franchises of all time. Michael B. Jordan returns alongside Sylvester Stallone in a story that brings the overarching narrative full circle (again).
Holding on to his title of #1 World Heavyweight, Adonis Creed finds himself in a precarious situation when his father’s killer, the villainous Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), emerges from obscurity, with his son in tow, and throws down a challenge to settle old scores. While Rocky naturally thinks it’s a bad idea, Adonis agrees to the bout and ends up near dead and beaten to a pulp. Before long, Adonis becomes a father with new responsibilities, but being a proud (egotistical, if you ask me) man he cannot refuse the opportunity to a rematch. And there we have it, a predicable plot that we might have once fobbed off as “good enough for a Rocky sequel”.
The fact that we’re eight instalments into the series makes Creed II an easy target for criticism, but it’s important to remember the legacy and all of the films that came before it. By switching the title from Rocky to Creed and giving us a new fighter back in 2015 they made an attempt to rebrand something familiar, but there was never any question about what the movie was. It’s been 42 years since the original Rocky wowed audiences and the story has taken all kinds of twists and turns, perhaps the most iconic of which was Rocky’s notorious showdown with Ivan “The Siberian Bull” Drago. And now that Adonis (the son of Apollo) has been established, where does the studio take his character? A “new direction” would have been nice, but they’ve chosen the easy way and dusted off the old Rocky 4 script.
From the moment Lundgren’s Drago returns to the screen, we are reminded of what movies were like in the 80s, and if Creed was a sincere attempt to bring the series to a new audience, Creed II is a desperate attempt to appease the old fans. And so be it. The film is contrived, clichÃ©d and testosterone-fuelled, reminding us of a time when Russians were enemies of America and portrayed as caricatures. Ivan and his son Viktor are archetypal Hollywood villains, and to hell with political correctness (good). Lundgren resumes his character effortlessly, and let’s face it, he’s been playing Ivan Drago ever since. Florian Munteaunu plays Viktor and mirrors Lundgren like a brainwashed son does his ruthless father.
The fundamental difference between Rocky and Creed is that Stallone’s character was endearing and always sympathetic. He was the underdog who rose up against all odds, promoting good sportsmanship and kindness, whereas Adonis Creed is simply unlikable. He lacks humility and his arrogance defines his story. Because of this he is not a character worth cheering for, and were Rocky absent from his evolution there would be no appeal left in the franchise. And should they make another film, it’s time to step up their game and flesh this character out once and for all (I’m sure Mr T is waiting for the call).
Creed II is an old-fashioned fight movie that offers just enough credibility to keep it within the franchise. Stallone’s hand in co-writing the script is what maintains its stability, but I highly doubt that he was solely responsible for the endless clichés and silliness. Without giving Adonis a believable and tangible emotional anchor, the film can only be taken for what it’s worth, and the value comes with the flying fists. When it comes to the fight sequences, Creed II packs a punch. From its roaring stadium set pieces to its dust-swept desert landscapes, there is no mistaking the nostalgia for old and when that legendary “Gonna Fly Now” theme music kicks in, it’s easy to lose yourself in the moment.
The performances are all passable, but none too memorable. Stallone and Jordan succumb to the familiarity of their characters and neither of them pushes to any substantial depths. This certainly isn’t the Oscar-nominated turn of events that the previous film boasted, but it does make for a serviceable sequel nevertheless. Its first act is a slow, meandering struggle while the second act severely plateaus, but thank God for a final act that brings the film home in glorious style. The energy that we know from so many Rocky finales over the years is back with a vengeance, and the final confrontation between Creed and Drago gives us a perfect note to end on.
Creed II is not a great film, nor is it a honourable progression for its characters… but it is, for the most part, an entertaining catch up with an old friend, and we can only hope that Stallone has another instalment left in him. In the meantime, bring on Rambo 5!