- Steven Caple Jr.
- Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Sylvester Stallone, Milo Ventimiglia, Brigitte Nielsen, Florian Munteanu
- 130 min.
- Release Date
Just as Creed (2015) borrowed its template from the original Rocky (1976), Creed II draws not from Rocky’s first or even second sequel but Rocky IV (1985). This 2018 follow-up to director Ryan Coogler’s much-lauded “requel” continues to rethink the successful boxing franchise for today’s audiences. But it’s a by-the-numbers rehash that doesn’t have many surprises or much to say. The movie adheres to every narrative beat predictably, including a climactic bout that proves deflated and visually uninspired. Although the supporting cast—especially Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and Phylicia Rashad—delivers memorable performances, the problem with Creed and Creed II remains that the writers haven’t given Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), now nicknamed Donnie, anything to fight for, aside from a fragile ego and need for revenge. Even though announcers describe the conflict as “Shakespearian,” the boxers remain the least compelling aspect of Creed II. The boxing matches also feel underwhelming next to the subplots surrounding them. Altogether, it’s a mediocre entry in the Rocky saga and a lackluster boxing movie.
Director Steven Caple Jr. (The Land, 2016) takes the reins from Ryan Coogler, working from a screenplay by Juel Taylor and Stallone from a story by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker. Thinking like opportunistic boxing promoters, the writers concoct an opponent with a personal backstory for Donnie. The first scenes take place in Kyiv, Ukraine, and catch up with Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago, who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in 1985. After Rocky later defeated Ivan, the Soviet warrior went home ashamed, committing himself to the restoration of his family name. Enter Viktor Drago (Romanian boxer-turned-actor Florian Munteanu), Ivan’s son, whom Ivan has trained on the streets of Kyiv, building him into a bulky slab of meat devoid of personality. After Donnie earns the World Heavyweight Championship title early in the film, boxing promoter Buddy Marcell (Russell Hornsby) engineers a title bout pitting Viktor against Donnie, using the champ’s absent father as an obvious ploy for a rematch among sons.
Like its predecessor, Creed II doesn’t give the audience much of a hero. Donnie lives a comfortable life of privilege, having been raised in luxury thanks to his father’s legacy. Whereas it was easy to root for Rocky, the humble and enduring underdog, the filmmakers give Donnie less to fight for—he has money, champion status, and, after proposing to his longtime girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a woman who loves him and will soon give birth to their first child. His reasons for wanting to fight Viktor amount to a generational conflict between the Creeds and Dragos, with no more nuance than the Hatfields and McCoys. Viktor wants to appease his father, and Donnie takes the bait, fighting out of foolish pride and not much else. Rocky warns Donnie about Viktor: “He’s dangerous.” But Donnie’s pride takes over: “I’m dangerous!” When Rocky refuses to participate in Donnie’s bout against Viktor, the titular champ slings insults at his grizzled friend, suggesting an unchecked ego. When he finally faces Viktor in the ring under a different trainer (Wood Harris), he ends up hospitalized but retains his champion status on a technicality.
While Donnie recovers, Creed II tries to engineer a reason for him to reenter the ring with Viktor, but his motivations lack dramatic heft. After all, Donnie becomes a father and has more to lose with Bianca, but even she asks him, “What do you have to prove?” His response is inadequate. Donnie argues that it’s not about pride, but rather, his belief that “I wouldn’t be any good to anybody if I don’t handle this the right way.” Ultimately, his justification amounts to macho bullshit. So why should we care? The answer, of course, is that we don’t. Jordan and Thompson have more chemistry and charisma than the script allows, leaving exchanges like this to feel robbed of drama. There’s more weight in the few lines dedicated to Rocky wanting to rekindle his relationship with his estranged son (Milo Ventimiglia). Regardless, Donnie agrees to a rematch. But before that, the movie delivers an obligatory montage sequence, cross-cutting between Ivan and Viktor in an old warehouse and Rocky training Donnie in an even more desolate locale, the desert, thereby framing him as the underdog.
The showdown between Donnie and Viktor might be one of the most unconvincing boxing matches in any Rocky or Creed movie. Set in Moscow, the sequence was clearly shot before green screens, making the actors appear on a different plane of existence from their environment. Caple Jr. and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau have populated the middle ground with a few rows of extras, but the background looks inhabited by anonymous CGI blur-people. The final bout looks almost laughably artificial for a movie that’s supposed to be about personal authenticity and fighting for your passions, with unconvincing choreography that never bolsters the drama. There’s also little discussion about Donnie’s fight strategy against his towering brute of an opponent, who appears to have about 100 pounds of sheer muscle mass over Jordan. Somehow, Donnie overtakes the brutish Viktor, though the sequel never establishes how our hero’s technique must change to beat his monstrous challenger.
The filmmakers hope Creed II will echo the grandstanding melodrama of Rocky IV, complete with some nationalist underpinnings and a half-baked theme about sons feeling unnecessarily obliged to fight their father’s battles. If that were the case, perhaps the sequel should have ended with Donnie and Viktor refusing to fight, realizing the absurd pressures placed on them by their fathers’ legacies, and bonding over their refusal to conform. Instead, the screenplay remains at odds with the standard Rocky movie template, and the writers try to force Donnie into a mold that never feels natural. This is a shame since Jordan is a terrific actor, evidenced by his roles in Fruitvale Station (2013) and Black Panther (2018), but his imposing presence is wasted here on a shortage of emotional drives. Stallone and Thompson fare better, but not by much. Add to this a general sense that we’ve been here before back in 1985, and Creed II never quite earns its place in the pantheon of boxing greats.
(Note: This review was originally suggested on and posted to Patreon on February 21, 2023.)