By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 23, 2018)
Predictable isn’t always a bad thing, particularly when what’s easy to see coming doubles as the proper choice and the most apt of decision. Virtually nothing about the sequel to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 spinoff/rebirth/reboot of the Rocky franchise, which placed Michael B. Jordan in the lead role as the son of one of Rocky Balboa’s greatest foes and friends, Apollo Creed.
The original film was a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end, and despite being formulaic and not taking any real risks, Creed captured audience emotions and was manipulative in the best possible way. The fight sequences were effective, well-shot, and each on-screen ring battle told its own story. That’s always been the Rocky way, for without the boxing itself, the drama would be sliced in half.
Creed II brings more of the same, including two more knockout performances (pun absolutely intended) from Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, not to mention Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad, and finally more depth than expected from Dolph Lundgren. If you’re reading this, you already know the general story of these films, you likely saw Coogler’s 2015 effort, and you’re just waiting for me to confirm what you assume to be true.
You’d be right.
Creed II may not pack all the punch of the original, which would be difficult to duplicate, but it combines some of the best portions of Rocky II, III, and IV, not to mention a little Rocky Balboa for good measure, and allows its characters room in which to operate. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan both collaborated for Black Panther, a project that ultimately led the former to exit the project. In his place is Steven Caple, Jr, a name I admittedly knew nothing about, but one that does have some “young star” buzz behind it in Hollywood directing circles.
The story is simple, as it should be. Not everything needs to be drawn out like a John le Carre adaptation. Adonis Creed (Jordan), with “Unc” Rocky Balboa in his corner, has gone on a multi-year winning streak as a fighter since the events of the first film, and he’s on the cusp of becoming the World Champion. Simultaneously, he’s gotten increasingly serious with his girlfriend, Bianca Taylor (Thompson), whose own R&B singing career is beginning to take off.
Meanwhile, in Kiev, Ukraine, one of Balboa’s greatest foes, Ivan Drago (Lundgren), who also killed Apollo Creed in the ring after Rocky didn’t throw in the towel for his friend/foe, is training his own son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), largely to try and recapture part of the life and the glory he feels was robbed from him after the loss to Rocky. It turned him into a national embarrassment in Russia, which led to the end of his marriage and the conclusion of his notoriety.
I could just stop here, because you know exactly what all this is building to, and again, you’d be right. Creed II concerns itself with the complex history of Creed, Drago, and Balboa, and sets the stage for a showdown between Adonis and Viktor. There’s one crucial factor that must accompany predictability in order to make it work. It has to be seamless, it has to be smooth, and it has to be executed with precision. Creed II generally succeeds on all fronts, and in similar fashion to a television procedural, you may know the crime will be solved 99% of the time, but you watch because you’re invested in the recurring characters.
Here, Creed II‘s story, written by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker, with plenty of input from Sly, makes magic with its relationships and its people. There’s a moralistic redemption to be found in the pure heroism of Rocky Balboa at this point in his life, and although Adonis Creed makes rash, reckless decisions, it’s because he sometimes lets his feelings override all. He’s still young and his life has been hard, so he’s bound to make mistakes.
Several relationships are consistently engrossing throughout Creed II‘s mildly bloated, but palatable 130-minute runtime, including of course Adonis and Rocky, which is dynamite. But, it’s by no means the only standout. The interactions between Adonis and Bianca, Rocky and/or Adonis and Mary Anne, Rocky and Ivan, Viktor and Ivan, and Adonis and Viktor all click. Even Wood Harris’ “Little Duke” Evers isn’t just a static stand-in during his scenes with Jordan and Stallone. If there’s one pairing I’d have liked to see more from, it’s Mary Anne and Rocky, because there’s SO MUCH HISTORY that still remains out there untouched.
Shockingly, even Ivan Drago isn’t a pure villain, even though he’s still got that hatable, hittable mug, as does his monster of a son that basically is the human equivalent of a bear that understands the sweet science. He’s frightening, and because of it, Adonis Creed has an underdog factor that provides the Balboa effect for Michael B. Jordan in a way even the original movie couldn’t match. Drago goes through his own growth process and never fails to be compelling as he prepares his son through hard training to succeed where he failed 30+ years ago against Rocky.
I found myself asking one question as the movie went along, and though it’s probably 10 minutes too long, I wasn’t bothered much by it, because though predictable, just like its predecessor, Creed II is imminently and infinitely watchable. It’s like eating a perfect piece of pie. If the story isn’t going to shock anybody, it had better be fun to watch, and Caple’s film certainly is from beginning to end.
The question is whether there needs to be a Creed III. The answer is incontrovertibly no, but did there need to be a Creed II? Again, same answer, which means YES, there should be a third installment, not just because it will make a beaucoup of cash, but because the audience isn’t remotely fatigued of this story. Though there are peaks and valleys, the peaks are worth the downer moments, just as it always was with most of the Rocky films. We’ll avoid speaking of the fifth movie, because…well you know, because it’s terrible.
I answered yes to the question before walking out of the theater when I realized that though I couldn’t come up with a reason why the story had to continue, I would look forward to the third movie once it was announced and I’d see it as soon as I could. That’s the answer in a nutshell. It doesn’t have to exist. Neither of these last two films did, nor did all the Rocky films, but they have and they do because people love them, we need a hero we can believe in, one that makes sense, and a story’s predictability doesn’t erase its purpose and its meaning.
Creed II ends beautifully both in and out of the ring, and as the credits begin, you’ll feel completely satisfied with what you just saw. These are indelible characters in pop culture, with Adonis, Bianca, and Mary Anne all joining Rocky to continue to breath new life into the franchise. Stallone was outstanding in 2015, and he hasn’t lost a step…he’s still got that haymaker and he can still dodge the jab.
Creed II isn’t an A+ film, but it’s exactly what it should have been, with emotional resonance and depth of character that overcomes any possible dull moment in the skeleton of the plot. Michael B. Jordan is on the cusp of becoming the brightest young star in Hollywood. From The Wire to Friday Night Lights to Fruitvale Station to Black Panther to the character he’ll likely now always be known most for, Adonis Creed, he’s got everything you want in a lead. My comparison, if I had to make one, is he has the capability to be on the Leonardo DiCaprio level if the right projects continue to come along and he begins walking away from the Fantastic Fours of the world.
I’m giving it an A-, simply because it accomplishes every goal it set for itself. It’s a worthy follow-up to a very good movie and showcases its talent properly throughout. Again, it’s not indispensable, and the idea of having yet another past character also have a son that’s a boxer isn’t particularly novel, but within the larger Rocky Balboa universe, it makes too much sense to dislike. Creed II is fun, it’s a good ride, and even though at times you might have to dodge a jab here and there, it’s such an easy film to watch and enjoy.
And that remains an achievement that sometimes goes overlooked and unpraised, but it’s impressive. Creed II might not be undefeated, but it’s a Champion, and not by decision either. It won in the ring. I left the theater fulfilled. So will you.
I’m @JMartZone. There is currently no statue of me in Philly, but maybe there should be? Probably not.