Creed II review – Rocky saga continues with knockout sequel

Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone add emotional heft to the latest chapter in the long-running boxing franchise

Before he delivered arguably Marvel’s most dazzling chapter to date, Ryan Coogler had managed something close to impossible in Hollywood: he had found a fresh way to reboot a dusty franchise. In a landscape of endless thirst and vacant remixing, he had somehow managed to concoct a nifty, imaginative way back into the Rocky saga with Creed, a film that felt old-fashioned yet fresh, intimate yet grand, a rousing return from the grave.

By focusing on the son of Rocky’s competitor-turned-friend Apollo Creed, Coogler was also able to reteam with Michael B Jordan, who made such an indelible impression in his first film, 2013’s devastating fact-based drama Fruitvale Station. The duo worked together again in Black Panther earlier this year, with Jordan switching tacks to play villain Killmonger, and so soon after, seeing him return as Creed is a further reminder of his broad star appeal, the sort of rare leading man one can imagine remaining at the top of his game for years to come. Given his time in Wakanda, Coogler was unable to return but he has handed over directorial duties to Steven Caple Jr, who impressed in 2016 with debut feature The Land, and it is a similarly deft rise from micro-budget indie to franchise film-making.

While it’s not quite the showstopper that its predecessor was, Creed II is still another knockout piece of entertainment. There’s a keen awareness of what made Creed work so well without it feeling like a lethargic rehash. This time, Adonis (Jordan) is the light-heavyweight champion of the world, in a loving relationship with his pregnant musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and still living near and working out with a recovering Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). But there’s discontent from boxing pundits, a feeling that his title is the result of a lack of real challenge. On the other side of the world, Rocky’s former nemesis Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo in the ring, is training his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) and when an ambitious boxing promoter offers them a chance to take on Creed, the heavyweight champion decides to to risk his title and possibly his life.

Even though the majority of audience members will be able to predict the film’s trajectory despite an early attempt at a surprise, this has no adverse effect on one’s enjoyment. There’s almost something comforting about the formula especially when it’s laid out with such vibrancy and, as in Creed, such heartfelt humanity. There’s a delicate intimacy between the characters that feels raw and authentic and like Coogler, Caple Jr’s indie beginnings seem to steer him toward filling a big film with small moments. As one character proclaims: “The belt ain’t enough, you need a narrative.”

Scripted by Stallone and first-time writer Juel Taylor, there are a number of narratives squeezed in, but without the overstuffed nature of many a committee-made sequel. The father-son dynamic between Creed and Rocky is textbook stuff but continues with surprising nuance in how it portrays the barrier between masculinity and vulnerability for two men trained to act tough in the ring. There’s also more time devoted to the rather sweet romance that proved so charming in the original, although I had one slight grievance with the decision to set up, then abandon a subplot centred around Bianca’s burgeoning, and entirely believable, music career. On a recent talkshow appearance, Thompson noted that a scene of her performing on Kimmel was cut, and it’s noticeable that a decision was made to restrict her arc from artist to mother. As a performer, Thompson is just so magnetic; it’s frustrating that she doesn’t get a bit more to do.

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan in Creed II
Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan in Creed II. Photograph: Barry Wetcher/2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In the same interview, she also spoke about her initial “chemistry test” with Jordan, a way of studying how two actors interact to see if there’s enough of a natural spark between them to convince onscreen. Yet again, it’s clear that this test, as awkward as it might sound, was a resounding success as there’s a genuine, palpable connection between the two, strong enough for the film to revolve entirely around their romance. Jordan is equally adept at playing boyfriend as he is at playing fighter and as strong as the film around him might be, it’s hard to see any of it working quite so well without him. Oscar-nominated for his somewhat revelatory performance last time, Stallone is equally impressive here. He has engineered a rebirth as a character actor, deserving of similarly thoughtful work in the future.

The fight scenes in Creed were choreographed, performed and captured with such finesse, crescendoing with Coogler’s breathtaking one-shot sequence, that anything even slightly less impressive feels like a dip. So while the fights remain undeniably involving, there’s a dazzle missing and nothing wows with quite the same impact. The choice to bring back Drago and introduce his son does pay off in a number of ways, from a restrained turn from Lundgren to an impactful overarching theme of how fathers, living or dead, haunt us all. There’s also a dominating turn from fitness model Munteanu, who convinces as both a fierce antagonist and a man struggling with the weight of expectation, paying for a past he wasn’t around for.

Given the never-ending production line of lazy inferior sequels, it’s such a joy to encounter one that feels necessary. Elevated by a central trio of winning performances and a director who provides equal weight to drama in and out of the ring, Creed II deserves to be cheered.

  • Creed II is released in the US on 21 November and in the UK on 30 November


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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