The Cold War didn’t officially end until the early-90s with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and in that 40-odd years of looming nuclear holocaust, many a film has used this intercontentional tension to deliver quality motion pictures – see Dr. Strangelove, The Hunt for Red October, and The Lives of Others. And – of course – Rocky IV. In light of Trump’s presidential-defining ties to Russian interference and a newly ignited political rivalry with Putin’s Russia, the idea of a Creed sequel that played off USA/Russian relations seemed not only narratively apt but also incredibly timely; a fine point of entry for any inevitable sequel and one that could have more on its mind than a couple of meatheads whacking at each other for two-ish hours. Instead the movie is just a couple of meatheads whacking at each other for two-ish hours.
In dredging up film boxing’s most iconic blood-match, Creed II refuses to go toe-to-toe with anything vaguely political, essentially ignoring any and all of the headlines of the past two years in what can only be described as an exhausting display of political aloofness. This is no rematch to end a new-age Cold War before it begins – it’s simply the story of a fighter’s thirst for revenge against the man (and his son) who killed his father. Plain and simple. There’s no 2018-context nor even a whiff of deeper meaning. This is a direct Creed and Rocky IV sequel that may as well have been made in a vacuum, what with its refusal to touch anything that could even be misconstrued as political savvy with a ten-foot pole.
Opting for familial melodrama and brushing political commentary to the side makes for an inoffensive, straight-and-narrow, crowd-pleasing, if wholly unchallenging watch – the film punching in a lower weight class that its predecessor while failing to evolve the sports genre in any discernible way. Not a lot more complex than a Wheaties cereal box, Creed II nonetheless accomplishes its job of hyping up an audience with its signature musical stylings (the soundtrack is definitively lit) and delivering the feel good endorphins of seeing your knock-around guy still standing as the dust settles even if it’s obnoxiously obvious that familiar movie mechanics are hard at work. Creed thrived off the raw kinetic energy of director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan and while the inner lives of the characters and relationships established therein are further illuminated here, Creed II lacks that selfsame hum, missing slightly wide with its balletic dramatic jabs, relatively untested director Steven Caple Jr. proving a permissible if uninspired replacement.
The screenplay from Sylvester Stallone and Cheo Hodari Coker (Luke Cage) takes us a few years into the future where Adonis Creed (Jordan) dominates the boxing world spotlight after winning 6-straight fights and contending for and seizing the World Heavyweight title. Flanked by his supportive girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who’s facing her own battle of being a musician on the highway to complete hearing loss, Adonis has to make some important decisions regarding his family, future, and his place in all of that. Before he can sink into the glory of his newly-won title, a distant shadow emerges from the cement factories of Ukraine in Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of the man who killed his father (Dolph Lungren) in the ring so many years ago. The story is concerned with legacy and pride and how the two threaten to become convoluted in the minds of warriors and both suffer the affliction of hubris. Creed agrees to fight Drago for all the wrong reasons – vengeful and angry and dwarfed in stature – though Rocky (Stallone) refuses to sit in his corner, his guilt over not throwing in the towel to spare the senior Creed the fatal blow still haunting him to this day. Age-old rivalries are settled in the ring and that is no exception here.
Caple Jr.’s sequel swings and connects using tried and true combos, more often than not opting for predictable pivots which soften the blow. The story is familiar, yes, but it’s also battle-tested, Creed II ultimately emerging as a crowd-pleasing blockbuster event movie that’s admittedly far from a true KO. And say what you will about celebrity workout routines and professional trainers, the muscles and bodies in this movie are beginning to look a bit more than unnatural, as is some of the action (particularly the slo-mo) which looks riddled with green screen and CGI. Jordan must have put on 40-pounds of muscle in a matter of months, transforming into a beefcakey poster child for injecting anabolic steroids and guzzling whey powder. And he’s not even the biggest guy in the room, with Munteanu’s towering physicality making for a brutally imposing hunk of Eastern villainy. His abs have abs. His biceps have biceps. He looks like he swallowed the Hulk. Pity that he’s never a ton more than an excessive slab of concrete with mommy issues. Creed II doubles down on the notion that “It’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit,” the movie going to great lengths to showcase just how much it actually sucks ass to get in the ring and get beat down by professional punch-throwers. Though the wallops have a sting of overproduction, missing the raw, feral edge of the most-interestingly directed boxing bouts, this thorough line about taking punishment and lining up like little Oliver Twist for more is hammered home hard and becomes the defining thesis of this legacy picture. It’s not about talent, mass, height, reach, training. It’s all about who can take a better ass-whopping and then turn the other cheek for seconds.
Inside the ring, Creed battles for legacy, to define himself outside of his family name. Drago battles just for that: his name. And his family’s return to good standing with the people and government officials. While Adonist wants to define himself outside the shadow of their fathers, despite having fully adopted his surname and his dramas, Drago wants nothing more than to prove his worth to pops. A little part of Adonis that he can’t seem to quiet whispers that he’s taken the easy way to claim the Heavyweight Champion title, defeating a Goliath who had already aged out of his prime. And the only way to deafen that petulant roar is by going through Drago, not skating around him. This is a man what must be cut through. Once the swings get flying, it’s a war of attrition in the ring, Drago never having lasted more than 4 rounds in a professional fight, Creed’s technical savvy absolutely critical to overcome an obvious size imbalance. Both on the canvas and on the street, things gets clunky, familiar streets are jogged down, hoodies up, sweated caking, and montages come flying fast and loose, but man when Creed (and Creed II) gets to punching, it’s easy to get swept up in all the blood and violence and national pride and forget everything that’s actually missing.
CONCLUSION: ‘Creed II’ entirely misses the opportunity to drum up any USA/Russia subtext in its predictable second fight but great music, strong (but admittedly less standout) performances, and a tried-and-true underdog story almost eradicate its many shortcomings. Almost.