Creed II (2018)

16 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Remember “Rocky IV?” Of course you do—how could you forget that epic silliness that stuck out like a sore thumb in a franchise that was so riveting in its grounded reality? (It’s the film that’s too goofy for me to hate.) Well, as much as we like to mock it (in good fun), we have no choice but to accept it as canon in the “Rocky” timeline. After all, it is what ultimately killed off the character of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed…at the hands of a Russian super-boxer (whose “I must break you” became a popular phrase). And then, “Creed” came along in 2015 and introduced us to Apollo’s son from a secret affair, Adonis “Donnie,” who was born after Apollo’s death and has grown up to be trained by Rocky Balboa to make it as a fighter in his own right. Thus, we had no choice but to accept Apollo’s cause of death as part of the continuing “Rocky” story.

And now comes its sequel, “Creed II.” Who should return for this one? That same Russian super-boxer himself, Ivan Drago (again played by Dolph Lundgren), and his son who challenges Donnie to a fight. Well, this should be interesting—how can you take Drago seriously in a movie?

“Creed II” found a way.

Yes, as silly as the setup sounds (the son of Apollo Creed goes up against the son of the man who killed his father in the ring), it’s remarkable the amount of development and care is given to Drago after all this time. He still has minimal dialogue (though it’s still more than his mostly-silent performance in “Rocky IV”), but he gets across what’s happened to him after Rocky took him on in the ring in his home country. He lost his belt and his cred in Russia, his family has gone through shame, his wife (Brigitte Nielsen) has left him, and he has raised his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), on two things—boxing and vengeance. With clever writing (and fine understated acting from Lundgren, on top of that), this boxing equivalent of a supervillain has now become (gasp!) a character. Who would have thought?

“Creed” seemed like the perfect sendoff to the “Rocky” franchise—a great way to say goodbye to the wonderful character of Rocky Balboa (who Sylvester Stallone has portrayed wonderfully all this time, despite the franchise going back and forth with hits and misses). But while Rocky is still alive, there is still more to explore with him in “Creed II,” such as wishing he would connect with his estranged son and training Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) just as Mickey taught him in the past. Plus, as the title suggests, this isn’t Rocky’s story anymore—it’s Donnie’s. And Donnie still has some growing up to do.

Now that Donnie is regarded as the new heavyweight champion of the world, this is where Ivan and Viktor Drago come in. They arrive in Philadelphia to challenge Donnie to a fight with Viktor, and there’s nothing Donnie would like better than to give a Drago a piece of his mind to avenge his father. But as Rocky points out, Viktor was raised entirely on hatred, which will make him an even more intimidating force to brawl with in the ring. But Donnie isn’t backing down.

In the meantime, Donnie has proposed to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and wants to start a family with her. The love story between Donnie and Bianca has that sweet touch that made the love story between Rocky and Adrian in the first couple of “Rocky” movies so special. That’s because while Donnie has a large amount of confidence in many things, it’s Bianca that makes him the most nervous because he’s afraid of letting her down.

Both of these opponents—Donnie and Viktor—have something to lose. Donnie could suffer the same fate as Apollo; Viktor could lose everything just as his father did. Even when “Creed II” follows the same formula that leads to a climactic fight, what’s more important and interesting is that I actually care about who wins in the end, just as I did with the best of the “Rocky” movies.

It’s always nice to see Stallone in his most comfortable role of his career (the role that gave his career a major boost to begin with), but it’s even better to know that he had a hand in screenwriting again, writing the script with Juel Taylor after Ryan Coogler took over both writing and directing for “Creed.” If we get a “Creed III,” which seems likely, I’ll be interested in seeing what else he can come up with for the beloved character of Rocky Balboa.

Speaking of directing, Steven Caple Jr. (who previously made a Sundance hit, The Land, unseen by me—though, I’m sure I’ll check it out soon enough) does a more than capable job keeping the story as grounded as possible, which helps us accept a universe that now has to allow Ivan Drago as a “real person,” more or less.

Even if the fighting scenes aren’t very original (especially after the groundbreaking one-shot fight in “Creed”), a lot of “Creed II” works because of what’s happening outside the ring. For a sports movie, especially one that involves boxing, that’s a definite plus. The heart is still in this franchise, and I’ll happily see “Creed III” if and when we get it.

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