As a teenager in 1985, I spent part of Thanksgiving weekend watching the debut of Rocky IV at the old Cardinal Theater in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Seeing star-spangled champ Rocky Balboa and Russian automaton Ivan Drago duke out the Cold War with a cinema full of U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune shouting colorful exhortations at the screen—”Kick his ass, Rock!”—was a memorable, interactive movie experience.
Thirty-three years later, Creed II taps deeply into that Rocky nostalgia, for better and worse. Having finally won the heavyweight title, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) faces a new challenge posed by juggernaut Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren, reprising the role), the man who slew Adonis’s father, Apollo, in the ring more than three decades ago. Against the admonitions of his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and his trainer, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, donning the black fedora for the eighth time), Adonis is compelled to avenge his father’s death.
Meanwhile, Viktor is fighting to restore his family’s good name, disgraced after his father’s loss to Rocky on Russian soil. The Dragos live in impoverished Ukrainian exile, their wife/mother (Brigitte Nielsen!) having walked out on them years before. Ivan is a taskmaster trainer, believing their last, best chance to regain the acceptance of Mother Russian is vanquishing the surrogate son of the man who bested him.
It’s dime-store Shakespeare: like Hamlet and Laertes, Adonis and Viktor are feuding sons forced to avenge their fathers while also made to atone for their dads’ misdeeds. But it’s a father-and-son narrative layered enough to give Creed II passable depth, particularly against the backdrop of Adonis’s own impending fatherhood and Rocky’s ongoing estrangement from his son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia, briefly reprising his role in Rocky Balboa).
As in Black Panther, Jordan plays a son seeking vengeance against the scion of his father’s killer. But Creed II is a far cry from that and Creed, Jordan’s last two collaborations with writer-director Ryan Coogler. The Land’s Steven Caple Jr. does a capable job replacing Coogler as director, but Stallone’s script inevitably follows the familiar Rocky tropes. Creed II is three-quarters of a very good film that presents itself with the daring possibility of a champion who finds victory by choosing not to fight.
Instead, the film becomes full-on Rocky IV redux, with a glitzy fight in America prompting a rematch in Russia. The ebb and flow of the bouts themselves feel predictable. And for Pete’s sake, enough with the incessant nattering of the fight announcers—this time Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman—with their excessively expositional voiceovers.
The film’s heart and soul is Jordan, who gives another knockout performance. Still, gone is the incisive racial, economic, and moral honesty of Creed, replaced by some pulpy daddy issues and another solid outing by Stallone in the only role he’s ever effectively inhabited. Creed II is a good Rocky sequel, but not as good a Creed sequel.