REVIEW: Creed II (2018)

US Theatrical Release Poster – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The following is a review of Creed II — Directed by Steven Caple, Jr.

Back in early July this year, I watched and reviewed the highly anticipated sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. The sequel subtitled Day of the Soldado was directed by Stefano Sollima and his film provided us with a perfect example of just how wrong it can go when you make a change in the director’s chair for a sequel. Day of the Soldado was offensive and hollow, and it is one of the biggest film disappointments of the year for me.

That experience, in particular, made me scared for Creed II. You see I was truly amazed by what director Ryan Coogler did with the original Creed-film from 2015. Coogler, who is now a big-name director who should have his pick of any and all tentpole film projects, didn’t just make a good Rocky spin-off. No, I still believe what Coogler did was to make the best film in the entire Rocky Balboa-film series.

There was a flavor to what Coogler did with Creed, which had top-notch character work. It wasn’t just that Michael B. Jordan was a great American star, which he absolutely is — especially after this year. Coogler’s film had exhilarating boxing scenes, tender and poignant human character moments between Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, and Coogler achieved all of this without following the formula too closely.

To replace Coogler is a big responsibility and a truly tough job. Stallone and the producers eventually handpicked Steven Caple, Jr., a fresh filmmaker whose only feature film experience was with 2016’s The Land. Unlike Day of the Soldado, Steven Caple, Jr.’s Creed II mostly succeeds as a highly anticipated sequel. Caple, Jr. hasn’t quite made as effective a film as Coogler did, but he has confidently steered a worthy sequel in a prosperous direction.

Creed II takes place more than a year after the events of the first film, and we meet up with Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan) when he is about to fight for the world heavyweight championship belt against Danny Wheeler (played by Andre Ward). Though successful in life and in the fight, Adonis does not feel like a champion. Though challenged, he hasn’t yet been satisfied or had the match that defines his stardom. It is at this point that Buddy Marcelle (played by Russell Hornsby), a boxing promoter, makes his appearance known.

Marcelle suggests that a fight with Viktor Drago (played by Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren), the man that killed his father in the ring, would make or break his legacy. Still feeling guilty about what happened to Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone) insists that he will not train Adonis for this fight, which makes Adonis resent the man who he calls ‘uncle.’ In spite of Balboa and the Creed family’s disapproval, Adonis Creed decides to participate in the match that will change him forever.

Though Caple, Jr.’s first tentpole film isn’t a complete home run, there is a great number of things that work tremendously well for Creed II. Though the ways the fights are shot here do not accurately recreate the stimulating and magical feeling that Coogler conjured up in his fistic film, Caple, Jr. and his team manage to capture the weight of every punch so that one crushing knockout, in particular, will shock, silence, and startle audiences.

Caple, Jr. clearly has a lot of love for, and, definitely, a lot of knowledge about, the Rocky Balboa-films, and the story of the film allows for plenty of homages and references to previous Rocky-films (just don’t expect to see a robot). To me, it was a very late character cameo that worked best. Fans of the very underrated final true Rocky-sequel, Rocky Balboa, might get a lump in their throat as they try to emotionally process the scene that the character appears in — it was the most emotional I became the entire film (just writing about it is moving, to me).

The best new thing that Creed II brings to the table, though, is the partial focus on the antagonists’ perspectives. Although he did have a couple of iconic lines in Rocky IV, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago was mostly a silent and blonde giant who was basically designed to take you down. Ivan’s wife, then and now played by Brigitte Nielsen, was pretty much his spokesperson, and in this film, she is a majestic ice queen whose presence or lack thereof scars both Ivan and his son.

The motivation that Ivan and Viktor have to compete is presented really well, and Caple, Jr.’s film spends a lot of time with the two antagonists, who end up having a surprisingly detailed life when compared to the boxers in Coogler’s Creed. Viktor is terrifying, Lundgren’s Ivan is driven, and together they represent an almost perfect mirror image of Rocky and Adonis.

Where the film falters is in its structure. Although Creed II is very entertaining, it also might be the most predictable tentpole film I’ve seen throughout 2018. If you’ve seen, or know the structure of, Rocky IV, then you pretty much know the order of things here, even though Creed II is nowhere near as short, exaggerated, or cartoonish as that 80s-film. Creed II sticks too close to the Rocky IV-formula to have the right flow of the story for fans of the series. You may feel that scenes go on for too long, or that the film moves at a much too slow pace. The problem is that you know what is going to happen at almost every moment, so you’re just waiting for the next scene to start, the next battle to begin, and the next round to start.

But, really, the problem, at least to me, is that Creed II doesn’t have that same sense of momentousness and energy that Coogler’s film, which was paced elegantly, had. That almost ineffable magic is missing here and it shows. Caple, Jr. has made a fantastic follow-up to Rocky IV, but I don’t think he has that same emotional punch in the scenes that are about Adonis and his world. It isn’t for a lack of trying, though. What Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson’s characters go through is really hard to sit through due to the sheer emotional weight of it all, but Caple’s punch here isn’t as powerful or deep as Coogler’s.

With all of that having been said, Steven Caple, Jr.’s Creed II absolutely is a solid sequel. I would even go as far as to say that the first Creed sequel is stronger than the first Rocky sequel was. But I’m not sure the story Caple, Jr. brought us really gives us a true sequel to Creed. Unlike Creed, this absolutely does feel like a Rocky sequel.

Creed II is very entertaining, but it doesn’t have the same personality or heart that Coogler’s Creed had. Thankfully, the ending of this film will allow for the next film — if there is one — to course correct and steer the Creed spin-off series back in the direction that will make it stand on its own more clearly. It’s time for Adonis to fight his own battles, not just those that the existence of the Rocky Balboa-franchise force upon him. This ought to be the final passing of the torch from Balboa to Creed. Go your own way, Adonis.

7.9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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