Review – Creed II (2018)

In 1976, America celebrated its bicentennial, and in that same year, Sylvester Stallone‘s labor of love, Rocky, was released. That movie took the world by storm at release, and in my eyes, it is one of the greatest American films of all time. Written by Stallone, the film shows Rocky Balboa (Stallone also starring in a role that the studios did not want to give him), a young no-name Philadelphia mob bruiser handpicked to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), for a bicentennial fight held in his city. That opportunity to rise up from the streets propelled both the characters of Balboa and Creed forward through a series of films, and while 2015’s Creed didn’t bear the Rocky moniker, it was very much a continuation of Balboa’s legacy.

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This year’s sequel, Creed II, is actually the eighth Rocky film (for any keeping count), and it releases 42 years after that original film. As Creed blazed a trail for itself under the incredible direction of Ryan Coogler (who also helmed Black Panther), this film continues that path with a relatively new-coming director, Steven Caple Jr., focusing on Apollo’s illegitimate son, Adonis Johnson, who takes on his late father’s name and place in the ring. In the role, we have the powerhouse of an actor that is Michael B. Jordan, and in this film, he further cements his worthiness alongside Stallone as a staple in this series. Sequels can fall victim to a host of problems, and while this is a direct sequel to Creed, it also shoulders being a sequel in the Rocky series, most connected to the events of Rocky IV in 1985. With all of these story obligations and a new director at the helm, is Creed II able to go the distance?

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I can say that this film is a success. In it, we see Adonis facing priorities beyond defending his title. He and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) are building a life together, but everything gets shaken up with a bout challenge issued by an international fighter with deeply personal ties to Adonis: Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), a mountain of a fighter who is son to Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his signature role from Rocky IV). Compelled to defend his title and family legacy, Adonis agrees, even if Rocky can’t support him in doing so. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if things turned out well, so yeah, you know how it goes. Still, not unlike stories told earlier in the series, Adonis gets a second shot to make things right, inside and outside the ring. It’s a grueling journey, to be sure, but that’s part of why we love these films.

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If it sounds fairly conventional, it is. Outside of seeing how characters like Bianca develop on their own, the film won’t offer too many surprises, but what it does offer are some nice reflections on fatherhood and family in a variety of ways. It’s often said that many men don’t talk much about personal stuff, and if that’s true, maybe they can gain through observing what they need to know from films like this. In that case, this film shows a lot about the rights and wrongs of relating with our children and that we can turn things around for the better, if we try. We can get off track in our families so easily through misplaced priorities or just ignoring what needs to be dealt with, and this film’s biggest contributions come in showing these things.

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Michael B. Jordan continues to show us why we love him on-screen. It’s been a long time since HBO‘s The Wire (a fact I was reminded of by seeing Wood Harris again with Jordan on-screen), and in that time, Jordan has skyrocketed to stardom, deservedly so. Since the original Creed, he stole the show in Black Panther as Erik Kilmonger, and while I would say he isn’t given too much here to challenge him as an actor (beyond the obvious physicality of the role), he continues to impress me. Stallone shifts to even more of a supporting role here, and reportedly, he is retiring the character of Rocky Balboa with this turn. If that is indeed the case, he gets a satisfying arc here, and it does right by one of the most loved characters in all of cinema. By film’s end, I got the impression that this series of films now belongs to Adonis, and we will see where that journey takes us.

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As I have watched other entries in the series in theaters, it’s always been common to hear audience members cheer and jeer, almost as if they are in the audience for the fights on-screen. That palpable energy was present within the fight scenes here, as well, even amidst that certain level of predictability to the overall story. I wouldn’t call this film “safe”, but being a direct sequel to Creed, it’s unavoidably in the shadow of it and the Rocky series at large. Coogler‘s direction there with that story just hit harder to me with not knowing how certain things in it would play out, and this can’t avoid being a degree lesser because it doesn’t take similar chances. That sounds vague, I know, but in my effort to be spoiler-free, it is what it is. Now, building off of its connection to Rocky IV, that distinction of this film being good but not the greatest fits for me, because that Soviet slugfest was actually one of my least favorite entries.

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That said, I will say that I am incredibly grateful that Ivan Drago is back in the picture here. His backstory since his fight with Rocky makes this film have real stakes for him and his son, and far and away, I responded most to their story here. When we see Ivan and Rocky on screen together for the first time in decades, it’s every bit as tense as we would want it to be. Viktor and Ivan have so much riding on defeating Adonis, and this makes them incredibly satisfying as foils for both Adonis and Rocky. Neither Lundgren or Munteanu have too much to say (at least in English), but this film makes everything that happened in Rocky IV even more important, elevating this film to be an incredible addition to the ongoing story of the series-at-large.

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Content-wise, there is language throughout and the (unnecessary) lead-up to a love-making scene are of note. Being a film about boxing and involving the danger of the sport, all should expect violence and some bloodshed. That’s been fairly common throughout the series. That said, this film amps up the intensity in some ways; there is a training sequence that will likely make you wince alongside Adonis as he pushes himself harder than ever. The lessons I mentioned earlier are great to think about beyond watching the film, and if you need to get things right with those you love as a response to it all, then that would make this film more than worth the price of admission. I authored a FREE Bible Study for Geeks Under Grace based on the film, and you can read it here.

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Like Adonis dealing with the legacy of his father, this film has a lot to live up to, and I would say it is mostly successful. Feeling to have less energy than the preceding film, it’s still an enjoyable and competently made follow-up; with its deep ties to the fan-favorite Rocky IV, it develops that film’s plot lines in interesting ways. In what feels like a true passing of the torch, it acts as a fitting swan-song for the character of Rocky Balboa, the greatest underdog in cinema history, and for a second-entry in a series named Creed, I finally feel by the end that we are at a point where Adonis has come into his own and the sole focus of any stories moving forward. Here’s to at least another round!

7.5

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