Creed 2 (2018)
Directed by: Steven Caple Jr.
Written by: Cheo Hodari Coker, Juel Taylor, Sascha Penn, Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
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RUNNING TIME: 130 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After his loss to “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, Adonis Creed scores a string of victories, culminating in a victory over Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler to win the WBC World Heavyweight Championship. Now a worldwide star, Adonis proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca Taylor, who agrees to marry him. However, trouble comes to Philadelphia in the form of Ivan Drago, a former Soviet boxer who killed Adonis’ father, Apollo Creed, in the ring thirty-three years earlier before losing to Rocky Balboa. Wanting to regain the glory that was taken from him in 1985, Ivan wants to pit his son against Adonis, a fight Adonis wants to take part in despite not having Rocky’s support….
For reasons I can’t recall, nobody on ‘HCF’ did a full review of Creed 2 despite Creed getting one and at least three of us being very fond of the Rocky franchise. I was very eager to revisit Creed 2 on Blu-ray because this is one installment that I couldn’t quite make up my mind about as I came out of the cinema. Of course I enjoyed it – it was a Rocky [okay more Creed but you know what I mean] film for goodness sake. It succeeded in pushing most of the emotional buttons it tried to and I was as ramped up come the final fight as always. But I couldn’t escape a certain feeling of second hand-ness. These films stick to a formula of course, but this one seemed to rehash far more than normal. I was initially very dubious about Creed, because it seemed like it would be a crass cash-in especially considering how Rocky Balboa, in particular its very last scene where Rocky even waved goodbye to us, was such a poignant farewell to the character. But the result proved me wrong and seemed like a very organic continuation that riffed on familiar things while also having something of a fresh feel. However, Creed 2 was not just a follow-up to Creed which surprisingly turned out to be so good, but a direct sequel to the worst film of the series Rocky 4….that also came across as a pretty close remake of Rocky 3 with a few bits from others particularly Rocky 2 thrown in. It seemed rather more about fulfilling the demands of a franchise and cherry picking familiar tropes more than before, even if it still seemed to work.
Viewing the film at home revealed more flaws, particularly a fatal imbalance in its dynamic which I guess I didn’t pay much attention to in the cinema because I was being carried by all that wonderful corn that us fans love about these films. While the fifth and sixth films do emphasis the downbeat more than the previous episodes, I can still stick on any Rocky film and it will uplift me no matter how down I am. However, I’m not so sure that this will happen as much with Creed 2. While the film has other problems, the chief one is that its two main adversaries are much more sympathetic than its hero. This of course can be a good thing and make some movies more interesting, but is this what we really want in a Rocky film? Do we really want to feel so sorry for Ivan and Viktor Drago that in the climactic bout we actually want Creed to lose? It’s certainly commendable that screenwriters Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone himself characterised the two Russians quite well, with Ivan having an actual arc which ends with him realising what’s really important to him, something which ties in with the emphasis on a certain kind of family relationship elsewhere throughout the film. But why does Adonis, a person for whom boxing seems to be his hobby, show little but how needy and insecure he is. We’re seemingly told that he undergoes a change around halfway through the film, but he didn’t seem to me to be that different from before, remaining a spoilt brat despite the daddy issues he’s dealing with. Again, I emphasis that this was only so strikingly apparent to me on my second viewing. Maybe I should have reviewed it at the cinema, but the other Rocky films don’t diminish for me with repeated viewings except for Rocky 4 which I loved as a teenager [I still have and treasure a promotional magazine released just before it came out which covered in detail the story of Rocky up to 1985] but not so much these days….so surely Creed 2 ought to have been the same?
It’s Ivan and Viktor whom we first meet, father waking son up before they go to a ring to fight where Viktor knocks out his opponent in four seconds, though Viktor is no cartoon-like character like his father was in 1985, he’s undoubtedly a bit of a brute but seems very confused and Florian Munteanu does very well in projecting a kind of pathos in playing the character without being given much dialogue except in one really rather hurtful outburst in a a scene towards the end of the film that also involves Brigitte Neilsen also returning from Rocky 4 as Ludmilla, Viktor’s mother who left him and Ivan many years before. She’s not sympathetic at all so at least we’ve got one real villain to boo, though they could have attempted to make her more than a cypher. Anyway, we rejoin Adonis having won a series of fights, and we get a lovely scene, even if it riffs on one in Rocky 2, of the very natural, relatable and well observed kind this series often does so well. Adonis is waiting outside the bathroom which his girlfriend Bianca is in, rehearsing his proposal speech. She opens the door to get a towel which she then dries herself with while thinking that his kneeling down is a joke, then not hearing his words because she hasn’t got her hearing aid in. When she’s finally able to listen, he doesn’t really get it right, but it kind of works anyway. Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson do have some chemistry together as the couple and we can see how they compliment each other, but they’re hardly Rocky and Adrian. At least Jordan is more natural this time around despite obviously struggling with a bizarrely written character, and Thompson gets to do a great sexy tough-girl swagger in a variation of Rocky 4‘s absurd musical boxing ring introduction.
Rocky seems to have been cured, at least for a while, of the cancer that afflicted him in Creed which is a good thing seeing as that subplot was a rather unnecessary addition to a series that has already seen a lot of tragedy. He still has his major issues, particularly his estrangement from his son Robert, while his graveyard visits to Adrian can’t help but move and also show again how good Stallone can be when he really cares. He also did well in resisting the temptation to give the character a new love interest and it was the right decision. Rocky has found a new lease of life in mentoring Adonis, but won’t support him in fighting Viktor, mostly because of what happened to Adonis’s father Apollo in 1985 where Ivan killed him in the ring and Rocky didn’t stop the fight because Apollo told him not to do do. Adonis goes ahead anyway even though he’s just become a father and of course loses, though he seems to recover from his severe injuries pretty quickly. And out of all the films, this is the one where it’s hardest to buy that our hero would want to get back in the ring again. We’re not given a proper insight into Adonis’s state of mind regarding this, just dialogue exchanges such as: “You’ve got people that need you know”. “That’s exactly why I can’t lose?”. But then Rocky for once is precious short on meaningful soundbites that can apply to life in general as well as boxing. All this film seems to be able to manage is: “If you gotta change things in a big way, you need to make some big changes”. Really? Well I never. Thanks for that.
The final battle isn’t really one of the series’s most memorable but still thrills enough so that you may flinch from every punch landed on Adonis, and I like it that the combatants are slightly more evenly matched than some. Quite often our hero’s opponent has the upper hand for so long it’s ridiculous how he still eventually loses. This is one of the slighty more measured climaxes though of course it’s still easy to pick holes in it if you want to and often watch real boxing. Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography doesn’t give us the whole fight in one shot as in Creed, but the capturing of the violence from so many angles certainly gives the action a visceral punch without falling into the trap of incoherency. When music composer Ludwig Goransson brings in versions of some of Bill Conti’s immortal original music, it’s hard not to get carried along. As before, his main two themes subtly reference some of Conti’s while having an identity of their own, though his new material is often dreary musical warbling. Steven Caple Jr. replaced Ryan Coogler for this sequel [the latter opted to do Black Panther instead which certainly paid off for him though seeing as I personally care less for that I wish he’d stuck with Creed 2] and does a solid job of maintaining the first film’s aesthetic while delivering something a bit brighter in look.
In the end Creed 2 still just about comes off for most of the time despite having a few major problems, and proves that even a pretty blatant rehash can have the right effect. There’s certainly something about the basic Rocky formula that ensures that it will always uplift yet also affect when it needs to, and Creed 2 is still somehow strong enough that it still maintains that very normal, beating heart that’s made so many fall in love with the character of Rocky Balboa, his successes and his failures. Despite the cheesiness that heartless detractors of the series mock, I feel that there’s a real meaningfulness to these films that makes them more than just movies about boxing and has certainly helped me in dark stages of my life and which will make them endure. It’s a measure of how strong this franchise generally is that Creed 2 is a distinctly weak entry yet still gets a fairly decent rating from me. However, it would be nice if they relied a bit less on nostalgia for the next entry and made Adonis Creed into somebody we can really get behind.