2015’s Creed was an unexpectedly successful film, a return to the roots of the oft-ridiculed Rocky franchise that used Sylvester Stallone not as a star, but as a guiding voice for a new generation and new breed of fighter. Casting the sensational Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, son of Rocky’s long-lost friend and former foe Apollo Creed, it maintained the roots of the Rocky stories, while freshening it with a new face and a new ideology. It was a terrific film, with tremendous performances by both Jordan and Stallone, not to mention a strong, if somewhat underused Tessa Thompson as Bianca, Don’s love interest.
It makes a strange, fitting sense that the film’s sequel continues to mine the nostalgic past of Rocky Balboa, this time bringing back to life one of the more preposterous storylines of the franchise. Rocky IV, a relic of Cold War fearmongering and American jingoism, is miraculously reborn in Creed 2, a lovely, intelligent, oddly quiet film that’s less a sensationalist clash of nation vs nation and instead a contemplative study of parents and their children. In a curious a study on the toxicity of family legacies, the film brings us the unlikely return of Dolph Lundgren’s imposing Ivan Drago, Rocky’s Soviet counterpart from Rocky IV. Broken and penniless from his loss in the 1985 film, Drago is now an embittered, frustrated man whose wife has left him, and who has pinned all his hopes on his son, Viktor (boxer and fitness model-turned actor Florian Munteanu). Under the guidance of a boxing promoter of questionable ethics (is there any other kind?), they travel to the United States to challenge Adonis Creed for this title.
Creed, meanwhile, is living with Bianca and contemplating the dangers of complacency, and both are dealing with a rapidly changing world. Careers, family, all those things come screeching to a halt with the appearance of the Dragos — the man who killed Creed’s father and Rocky’s friend. What follows is a riveting examination of two families, a heady drama the moves with a burning intensity thanks to more fantastic performances by Jordan and Stallone and Thompson, not to mention a small but strong performance by Phylicia Rashad as Creed’s mother, Mary Anne. It all comes crashing down on them after a brutal fight, and Jordan is left trying to pick up the pieces and figure out just what the hell he’s doing with his life, his career, and his family. Jordan is a brooding force, an anguished, angry, lost soul with so much power but so little understanding of what his purpose is. Interestingly, Stallone takes a bit of a step back and instead succeeds once again in a smaller performance, torn between the affection he has for his protégé and a very real fear of the risks of the fight (not to mention some internal struggles of his own).
It all makes for incredibly compelling drama, replete with some spectacular boxing matches, gorgeous cinematography, and sure-handed direction by Steven Caple, Jr. It’s aided by a blistering soundtrack and while the inevitable training montage doesn’t live up to that of the first one, it’s brutal and satisfying. Yet what I ultimately was most drawn to was the stoic, simmering performance of Lundgren, who somehow manages to convey a sense of desperation and heartbreak, while still being kind of terrifying. He’s helped by Munteanu, a 6’4”, 245-pound nightmare of glares and barely-contained rage. Munteanu wisely isn’t given much to say — he’s too raw an actor for that — but when he’s asked to deliver lines he does so with enough force and intensity that it shows some great promise. There are fascinating parallels between him and Lundgren (I highly recommend this excellent interview with the two that shows a surprisingly complex dichotomy), and that emotional connection comes to the surface over the course of the film. That father-son dynamic that feels so strong between Rocky and Creed is that much more fragile and complicated between the Dragos.
If the film has a misstep, it’s the misuse of both Thompson and Rashad. It’s a shame that a film so deeply entrenched in machismo and that works so hard to drag its leads out of those stereotypes — the very stereotypes that the OG Rocky films helped create — stumbles so when it comes to the female characters. Both women give impressive performances, but the script ultimately fails them, forcing them to do far too much emotional labor, leaning hard into the trope of a woman being forced to lead a tortured man out of the darkness, often at the sacrifice of her own self and identity. Creed and Stallone can’t be mature enough to just get their shit together — they must be shown the light by these brilliant women who seemingly put aside their own lives for the sake of the men. It’s a glaring weakness in an otherwise wonderful film.
Yet while there are some clear missteps, there’s no denying that Creed 2 is a riveting film. I was literally gasping through the final fight, a harrowing and wild battle that feels like some of the best onscreen boxing I’ve seen — movie boxing is rarely like the real thing, but this was done in such entertaining fashion that its liberties are easily forgiven. But it’s the performances of its whole cast, including smaller roles like the ever-reliable Wood Harris as another of Creed’s trainers (who has his own nifty connection to the previous films), that makes the film so enjoyable. It’s a tough, sometimes brutal (though not gratuitously so) film that travels some dark roads and explores some unexpectedly deep themes, creating a powerful and compelling story that feels like the perfect addition to the Creed story.
Header Image Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer