It took me some time to come to terms with it, but my earliest memory – both in life and of film – is of the “No Easy Way Out” montage sequence from Rocky IV, a movie that is most definitively an 80s picture. On the NOLA Film Cast podcast, I commented that I wasn’t really sure what it meant to have this as a marker of personal awareness; Did I sub-consciously choose it? Am I associating something about the images and sounds with my surroundings? Have I something to be guilty of that needs responding to? I’ve settled in without choosing a question to answer, and just accepting the fact. When people say they grew up on Stallone movies, I can say, for certain, that my consciousness came into being with the 4th Rocky installment. This is no source of shame, mind you – just a peculiar curiosity.
What isn’t peculiar is in how emotionally resonant Creed II is. Indeed, being a story sequel to Rocky IV and a follow-up to the most impressive first Creed, it had some big gloves to fill. While IV works in spite and despite its melodramatic goofiness and mega-heroics, and our spin-off series following Apollo Creed’s son had a beginning as bright as the sun, this sequel could’ve easily fallen into some in-between trappings. A creative purgatory where nothing quite works, not the cheese, not the nostalgia, not the arcs. Instead, this new entry plays things just above safe, being a crazy good crowd pleaser that is both level-headed and daring, but within set limits.
The story of Adonis Creed picks up as he becomes a champion, catching the attention of one Ivan Drago – who was responsible for killing his father Apollo in the ring in IV – who has been training his son Viktor for many years to accomplish one goal: restore the family name and glory. With stubbornness as his driver, Adonis accepts the challenge, only to begin a journey that takes him from faux vengeance to righteous pride, from loner to father, from pupil to fighter. When that familiar music swells, mixed with the raw bodily harm and the strength to stand up and take on more, you’ll cheer, guaranteed. You may even cry a bit. These Rocky movies are great at pulling strings, maybe because sports are universal and we can all relate to fighting something in our lives. Creed II is manipulative, but only in so much that every exercise in cinema is manipulative. And, by this, I mean this movie is extremely effective.
Adonis, as played by the great Michael B. Jordan, isn’t nearly as humble as good old Rocky Balboa was at this point in his career. Adonis is an act first, strong-willed and sometimes selfish person. Same goes for Ivan Drago, a man stuck in the past, living through his son, and looking for redemption. Adonis seeks the same, but for something he inherited but wasn’t involved with. A debt, so to speak. He sees this not as a choice, but an inevitability, while Ivan and Viktor are on a path they want to walk. Both sides are wrong about it all and will go through quite the trial to learn this.
Creed II doesn’t so much explore family and “sins of the father” tropes, as it lives them out. We are privy to the most physical torture, by others and by the self, that Adonis and Viktor are faced with confronting and resolving. Through the bodies and the punches of both boxers, through their grunts and their aches, this sequel pushes passed concerns of sophomoric story slump, delivering a wealth of complexity beneath the bruises. It may not completely tap the resources it has, paced just fast enough for an audience to breath and maintain interest but perhaps goes by too quickly for further personality, the movie suffices as fine as can be. That’s good, but why not go further?
The Drago Saga, what little we see of it, resembles the same allotment of time as Ivan got in IV, relegating it to just above obstacle for Adonis and just below contrast to Adonis. For all of the effectiveness of Creed II, for all of the applause from the masses, it doesn’t reach for more, staying in its lane, veering off only out of peculiar curiosity. This is no stale tale, mind you, but one that kinda feels lacking in places. The script is fine, the performances are fine, the photography is fine, but that’s it. Just … fine.
I may be a bit tough here, but really its just following the formulaic set by IV. It’s just giving us a taste of that other story on the flip side, while the titulars are the centerpiece. That’s fine. It still works and works well. Creed II isn’t a bother or a chore, and any nitpick I have comes from mostly a place of “what if” and “what could’ve been”, when “what we got” is the main course of conversation. And what we got was pretty memorable, if mostly serviceable.
RATING: 3.5 / 5
Creed II is currently playing across New Orleans and the metro area.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Be sure to check out his fantastic film reviews and other articles here.