“If I can change and you can change… everybody can change!”
So declared a bleeding and blubbering Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at the end of 1985’s Rocky IV, minutes after he defeated the superhuman boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) to avenge best friend Apollo Creed’s (Carl Weathers) death at the Soviet’s red-gloved hand, thereby winning over his Russian audience and ending the Cold War.
And you know what? Rocky was right. He changed and they changed and we all changed. Sure, the Cold War ended four years later (without the Italian Stallion’s contributions as a pugilist or a rhetorician, strangely), and the jingoistic power fantasies soon fell out of favor. Rocky movies tried to follow the change with two more dour entries (1990’s Rocky V and 2006’s Rocky Balboa), but neither succeeded like the gritty drama of 1976’s Rocky or the goofy fun of Rocky IV.
Then a real change happened in 2015, when director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington brought us Creed, the story of Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), who urges a retired Rocky to become his manager and help him follow in his father’s footsteps.
Creed could have been a simple crowd-pleaser, recycling old plots and bringing in familiar characters to play on the audience’s nostalgia (kind of like 2015’s other eighth entry in a formerly popular franchise from the late 70s). But Coogler and Covington gave us a proper film, one that not only reminded us why we loved Rocky Balboa in the first place, but also introduced complling new characters (such as Tessa Thompson as musician Bianca, a woman with far more agency and depth than Rocky’s beloved Adrian), and some truly breathtaking direction, including a match shot in a stunning single take. It was a change for the better, one that honored the best parts of the Rocky franchise — the exciting fights, Stallone’s natural charisma as Rocky, Bill Conti’s fantastic score — while setting a new standard for modern boxing movies.
Unfortunately, Creed II is change for the worse. Gone are Coogler and Covington, replaced by director Steven Caple Jr., working off a thudding screenplay by Juel Taylor and Stallone. The story plods along gracelessly, pounding upon mundane plot points and beating three dimensional characters into flat story cyphers.
A compelling dangling element from the previous film gets resolved in the first act as Donny quickly defeats remaining challenge Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward) to become the World Heavy Champion. With status quo set, the movie brings back Ivan Drago and son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), a fighter who shares his father’s nogoodnik tendencies. Young Viktor trains in post-Soviet austerity, where he learns how to cheat and how to destroy his opponents.
Despite all of these Rocky IV references, the plot more closely ties to Rocky III, as Donny — training without Rocky, who refuses to watch another Drago kill another Creed — gets his body and his masculinity crushed by Viktor, and mopes around in the movie’s middle stretch before speeches and training montages ready him for the rematch.
While these hackneyed motivations are a clear step down from Creed’s three dimensional characters, they are inline with the larger Rocky franchise. And as cheesy as it is to watch Stallone pump iron while Survivor wails about “The Eye of the Tiger” and Mickey (Burgess Meredith) barks malapropisms, it sure is fun. But Creed II mistakes its predecessor’s complexity for seriousness and saddles Donny’s training and family travails with a ponderous weight. Donny scowls as he punches a heavy bag next to his young daughter to realize that he fights for her and Rocky slams a sweaty medicine ball into his charge’s abs as they glower in the desert sun. The tough guy posturing is no less silly than Rocky’s call for world peace, but at least that movie had the decency to embrace its cheese. Creed II treats Nike slogans like Neitschze aphorisms.
Again, one senses that most of the fault lies in Stallone’s script, which refuses to let Donny continue his development out of Rocky’s shadow. Nothing illustrates this as well as a scene which begins with Rocky telling Donny “It’s your time now,” and then follows the older fighter for a few minutes, while the younger falls away in the background. The story wants so badly to be a modern Rocky sequel that it sacrifices character development, theme, and even basic pacing to set a familiar story cycle: champ gets soft , champ gets beat, champ gets down, champ gets tough, champ gets revenge.
But while Caple can’t make the story work, he and cinematographer Kramer Morgantheau do deliver some striking imagery and keep the fights clear and brutal, just as they should be. Caple also gets perfectly charismatic performances from his cast, especially Jordan, who is just as magnetic here as he was in February’s Black Panther, despite the far thinner characterization. Likewise, Thompson retains the intelligence and confidence Bianca had in the first movie, even as the sequel shackles her to a nonsense mommy plot that never pays off. Stallone’s so lovable that we almost forgive Rocky for overstaying his welcome, and Lundgren and Munteanu slip a few welcome smirks under the Dragos’ grimaces.
In these fleeting moments, we get a glimpse of the lean, mean movie Creed II could be. But before the lightness can set in, a thudding plot point slams into the proceedings, leaving the movie to wallow in pain, never letting it find its feet.