I love sports. Team sports, that is, meaning I could not give less of a sh*t about boxing. Boxing movies, on the other hand, are about as good as it gets in regard to Sports being a quasi film genre. While I feel like something of a hypocrite for saying that, not having seen such classics as Raging Bull or Ali, I have seen all seven – now eight – Rocky movies, and boy do they hold up. For the most part. I mean, we don’t need to talk about Rocky V. But for a franchise that’s gone on as long as it has, it’s astounding to note just how consistent they are, with well more than half being at least fairly good. The only thing I’d consider it second to on such a widespread scale is Harry Potter, which in and of itself is kind of crazy when you think about it. Still, one of the reasons the Rocky movies are so compelling is that they’re glorified soap operas, minus all the schmaltz and bad acting. Somehow they’re able find Rocky and company film in and film out something to prove or something to accomplish in the face of unbeatable odds, even though at the end of the day, every conflict comes down to one guy with puffy hands swatting at another guy with puffy hands. Seriously, if HBO wants to do an in-depth look at Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. leading up to the fight, complete with training montages and detailing how they’re impotent in their marriages or trying to make their dads proud or something, I would definitely tune in. All that said, the Rocky movies don’t feel like soap operas, and that’s because they’re grounded in rich character development and genuine stakes. And for the most part, they don’t bog themselves down with sensationalism or jump the shark a whole lot even though they went right through the 1980s when that sort of thing happened all the time. Save for Rocky IV, that is, one of the most overrated films I can think of, in my opinion. That said, it proved to be a fabulous starting-off point for Creed, and even more so Creed II, which not only improves upon the first, but is the best in the franchise since the original Rocky from 1976. Just going by plot, one could easily see the first Creed as being a mere prelude into this one, the definitive one that realizes precisely the reason they decided to go down this route. Not only are Rocky’s and Adonis’s character arcs much more poignant and fleshed out, but the same could be said of supporting players like Adonis’s girlfriend Bianca, returning antagonist Ivan Drago, and his son Viktor Drago. Not only that, but it further exemplifies the franchise’s ability to make these soapy storylines feel rooted in logic, keeping you from even questioning certain narrative beats. Plus it has a kick-ass montage sequence, but that pretty much goes without saying.
Taking place three years after its predecessor, Creed II picks up with Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) finally claiming the WBC World Heavyweight Championship, silencing doubters as to his prowess. But just when he thought he was out of the shadow of his father, Apollo Creed, back into the spotlight comes the man who killed him Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), whose battle-tested son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is ready to challenge the new champion. With so little time to savor his newfound accomplishment, Donnie finds himself accepting Drago’s challenge else he be labelled a coward. Donnie’s manager Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), the only man to defeat the elder Drago, is not so enthused, unwilling to watch for a second time as a Creed is killed at the hands of a Drago. But Donnie is already thinking about his legacy, as he looks to make a new life with his girlfriend Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson). Regardless, he and Rocky are going to have to confront the past together and settle an old score if they’re ever to think about the future.
This is a story about fathers and sons. Seriously, Y chromosomes are on a rampage in the Rocky universe when you think about it. Let’s just round ’em up, shall we? Of course, you’ve got the eponymous Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed. He’s going up against Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago. And he’s being trained by Rocky Balboa, who looks to reconnect with not only his son Robert, but his son’s son Logan. Hell, even Tony “Duke” Evers, Apollo Creed’s trainer from the original franchise, has a son in the form Tony “Little Duke” Evers, who is also a trainer. Man, not that I want Creed to turn into Million Dollar Baby, but can we get some chicks up in here? Joking aside, Creed II does some great work in fleshing out some of these relationships, so much so that it actually adds layers to a franchise that is emotional but not terribly nuanced. If you weren’t sold on the concept of the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed fighting to work his way out of his father’s shadow in Creed, you’ll most certainly be on board for Creed II, which is arguably the more realized version of his story. And while we’re still talking about sons, who would have thought that Ivan Drago, one of the most intimidating villains from the 1980s but as deep as a sheet of binder paper would make for such a sympathetic antagonist the second time around and over thirty years later? Granted, he doesn’t get a whole lot in the way of screen time, but the few scenes he and his son Viktor are given do more than enough to make the audience understand exactly what they’re after and why. And one of the best moments in Creed II comes toward the end of the film when it acknowledges and builds upon why people cling so hard to Rocky IV to begin with. I’m not always a fan of a movie getting a sequel so late in the game, but between this and this fall’s Halloween, it’s looking more and more like Hollywood is starting to perfect the formula.
There have been so many Rocky movies, they basically inhabit their own genre in film. And people have come to know what to expect to the point that there’s not a whole lot of places to narratively weave around, almost like it has roped off a whole ring for itself. Yet it finds it anyway, fighting the same fight but with different moves. In essence, those looking for Creed II to emulate the iconic moments and set pieces that make the franchise memorable will certainly get it. For starters – and no surprise here – the montage sequence building up to the big, climactic fight measures up to the best of all the montages while still making itself aesthetically distinct. There’s an argument to be made if it’s on the same level as a bunch of dudes in ATVs doing wheelies in the street from the first Creed, but for the movie it’s in, it does just fine. And I guess it’s worth mentioning that the fights themselves are up to par, as per usual, entertaining as ever. Though I’d make the claim that they’re a step up now that they feature an opponent worthy of the story’s esteem, something the series has been lacking in one way or another since Drago Sr. last stepped into the ring in Rocky IV.
Again, there are a smorgasbord of good Rocky films, so I think it’s saying something that I deem this one to be the best sequel to date, only bested by that of the original. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that it uses its predecessors as a foundation for finding its own stride, that the current events are wholly shaped by previous ones and not just by plot or convenience. And I think there’s a lot of credence to the notion that this is a sequel that caters to longtime fans, giving them something that pays respectful homage to the others without having to be beholden to them either stylistically or narratively. And credit should be given to incoming director Steven Caple Jr., who had a tall task in following up an Oscar-nominated Creed that was directed by superstar filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who still sits on top of the domestic box office for the year with February’s Black Panther. While you could look at Creed and Creed II simultaneously and not question whether they were helmed by the same person, I think there’s plenty to be said that a sequel improves upon the first while still playing within the same dojo.
Truth be told, I had an absolute blast with Creed II. Few movies this year had me walking out of the theater feeling like I’d watched something truly moving and unique, but this was one of them. When the first Creed came out, I’d done myself the service of going back and watching all the previous films, having seen none of them save for Rocky Balboa at arguably too young of an age and not getting it. One could say I was a little underwhelmed upon watching Creed immediately after, though respectful toward its filmmaking practices. I’d since kind of forgotten about how awesome the franchise is, and thank goodness Creed II has reminded me of that and more. I’m not entirely sure where the movies could go from here or even if they shouldn’t just go out on top, but I’m damn glad I got this one.
Final Score: 9/10