Looking back, it wasn’t the military might, economic power, or moral right that won the Cold War for the United States and its Western European allies, but onetime underdog turned world heavyweight champion and Reagan-era propagandist Rocky Balboa (writer-director-actor Sylvester Stallone) who entered the ring against symbolic incarnation of the Russian Soviet Empire, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), and knocked him down flat. America won, but it took another four years before the Soviet Empire dissolved into Russian and former Eastern and Southern satellite countries. Thirty years later, the Soviet Empire might be a half-forgotten memory, but for Rocky and Drago, the Cold War never really ended. It just went into a deep Artic freeze, waiting for the perfect opportunity – a stealthy, unexpected, ultimately rousing combo of carefully calculated nostalgia and the one-two punch of filmmaker Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan – to thaw and get the sequel Stallone apparently always wanted.
No surprise then that Creed II, the inferior, if still crowd-pleasing sequel to Coogler and Jordan’s 2015 franchise revamp, opens not with Adonis Creed (Jordan) back in the ring, winning the heavyweight title that eluded him three years ago (that comes later), but with a broke, broken-down Drago, exiled to the industrial wastelands of Kiev, Ukraine, waking his mountain-sized son, Viktor (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu), for an early morning workout in frigid, sub-freezing weather. When Rocky defeated Drago 34 years ago, Drago lost everything: social status, wealth, even his wife, Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen). Drago has spent the last three decades pouring his bitterness, resentment, and hatred into his size, turning Viktor into the instrument – the weapon – of his redemption, but with Rocky retired, that leaves Drago with only path: Leveraging the younger Creed’s obsessive quest to match or surpass his late father’s legacy into a world title fight.
Spoiler alert: Creed and Viktor meet not once, but twice, in the ring. The how – courtesy of a manipulative promoter, Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) – or the when – earlier than expected – doesn’t matter as much as Creed’s mix-and-match personal journey (a few plot elements from Rocky II, a few from Rocky III, a few more from Rocky IV, with a coda tying up loose ends from Rocky Balboa). Living up to the “II” in the title, Creed II gives moviegoers not one, but two, training montages, cutting back and forth between the younger Drago and Creed, while mixing in Creed’s home life, a long-term romantic relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) that eventually turns into marriage, Bianca’s pregnancy, and the birth of their first child, a daughter. Bianca’s music career – along with the hearing loss that threatened to shorten the same career – gets more than a few minutes of screen time. Stallone and his writing partner, Juel Taylor, set aside fight prep for domestic scenes that often feel like they’re part of another, less formulaic movie.
Coogler’s absence, however, is felt most during the fight prep and fight scenes. Coogler’s dynamic camerawork, intuitive sense of pacing, and fondness for tracking shots and classical visual compositions did much to elevate Creed’s shakier story beats. His replacement, Steve Caple, Jr. (The Land), lacks Coogler’s skills as a visual storyteller, but otherwise delivers competent, straightforward direction. Caple also indulges –more like over-indulges – Stallone the producer and writer’s tendency to give Rocky long, meandering, cliché-heavy speeches. Regardless of the situation, Rocky has a speech and a platitude at the ready. In probably Creed II’s most unrealistic plot development, everyone listens raptly to Rocky. And he’s always proven right, even at the cost at an early-film rift with Creed, whose more of a son to Rocky – due to shared interests, life experiences, and the debt Rocky feels he owes to Apollo Creed’s son – than the estranged son Rocky hasn’t called or contacted in almost a decade.
If Creed II has any surprises, it’s not in the storyline-by-template (rise, fall, rise again), the moral and physical victories along the way, or the predictable fight scenes, it’s in Creed and Bianca’s believably evolving relationship as life partners – elevated by generational talents Jordan and Thompson – and parents and the strained, abusive relationship between Drago and his son. Viktor’s ruthlessness and rage isn’t his own: it’s his father’s. And in a movie that’s ultimately about fathers and sons (Rocky and Creed, Creed and the legacy/memory of his long-dead father, Ivan and Drago), Stallone deserves credit for giving a Cold War caricature (Drago) more depth and nuance than he probably deserved or deserves. Stallone also deserves a tip of the porkpie hat for not turning Creed II into an obvious middle chapter in a trilogy. Creed II leaves room for another sequel, but it also doesn’t need a third entry to answer unresolved questions or round out the title character’s personal and professional journey.