Rocky Balboa should be dead by now. So should Adonis Creed. A boxing strategy based around being pummeled in the skull 50 plus times every fight without bothering to lift a hand for protection isn’t a sound long-term plan. I can only wince at what the results would look like in real life; a bloody, swollen brain overflowing with fluid and tau proteins after it’s been put through the blender a couple thousand too many times. Luckily for our characters, and for us as viewers, this is not the case, as somehow over the years they have managed to defy the delicate nature of the human body and carry this improbably great franchise with them. And I’m happy to report that Creed 2 mostly continues this trend.
Much like our fighter’s tactics, while there are some undeniable structural flaws to Creed 2, it’s still able to prove itself a solid winner in the end. Powered by an absolutely jaw-dropping, knockout ensemble cast (yeah yeah I know, but believe me if MGM wants to use that line to promote their movie, by all means, count me in), Creed 2 is largely successful at delivering a heartfelt and thoughtful story while showcasing the same rousing montages and thrilling (albeit brutal) fight scenes that have become a staple of this franchise. But, comparing Creed 2 to the original –which was both my favorite film that year and one of the best films I’ve ever seen in theaters– it naturally falls a step or two short.
Of course, to me, that means I’ll only rewatch Creed 2 once a month instead of my daily biblical studies of the original Creed.
And look: while Creed 2 merely being good obviously renders it slightly disappointing in the shadow of the original, if you read about the basic plot for this movie and saw the 4th Rocky, you were probably (like me) nervous about the wreck the film possibly could have been. But what’s far and away most surprising about Creed 2, is that it turns this possible cheesy weakness into the film’s biggest strength. A direct sequel both to the first Creed movie and Rocky 4, Dolph Lundgren reprises his role as Ivan Drago — the former Soviet Union boxing champion who killed Appolo Creed before being beaten by Rocky. Similar to Rocky though, he’s the coach this time around for his son Viktor Drago (played by the real-life boxer Florian Munteanu). Yet while Creed 2 could have easily used the Russians as the murderous villains just waiting for Creed to give them what they had coming, they are instead respected with an extremely empathetic and human view of their admittedly tragic story. I’ve heard criticism of this movie not daring to touch the fraught political nature of Russia today, but it is Creed 2’s willingness to look past these societally constructed narratives that so dominate the boxing world as they do our political and social world, and instead dare to see these characters as people that is its greatest strength. And I mean come on, if you’ve seen Rocky 4 how the hell could you possibly demand a political angle from this series.
Exiled following Ivan’s loss to Rocky and left to rot in poverty in Ukraine, Ivan has raised his son to be a savage beast in the ring so he can carry the family to glory once again. A brutally honest depiction of redemption and finding one’s legacy, the simmering emotions that lay at the sleeves of the Russian team make for by far the best scenes in the movie, the franchise, and some of the best scenes of the year and I pray this is not the end of their stories. They may not have very many lines of dialogue, but Ivan’s conflicted anger and Viktor’s boyish fright cut deep and touch on the more interesting questions Creed 2 poses.
How do we let our legacy define us?
How are we connected to our parent’s legacy?
What’s really worth fighting for?
But while Creed 2 gracefully delves into these questions, I found myself most frustrated not by what was on screen but by what wasn’t. The runtime is an already decent 2 hours and 10 minutes but it desperately needed more. Not counting fighting scenes, the Russians couldn’t have been on screen for much longer than 10 minutes. I found their scenes the most fascinating to watch so it stands to reason I’d want to see them more, but even beyond that, the biggest problem I had with their absence was actually its effect on the emotional structure of the movie. There were obvious connections between Viktor and Creed’s story and by focusing on their duality Creed’s motivations and own story would have come into much better focus.
This need for more scenes was not limited just to the Russians however.
On the home front, the film tracks newly minted light-heavyweight world champion Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) as he and his partner Bianca (Tessa Thompson) begin to start their family together. Meanwhile Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is attempting to find a real family of his own before everything is shattered with Viktor’s challenge. These scenes of decidedly peaceful interpersonal-drama take up a surprisingly large percentage of the movie, although they’re by and large well enough done that it works. Although they won’t be acknowledged come award season, Jordan, Thompson, and Sylvester Stallone play off each other perfectly with Oscar-worthy performances all around and it is to their testament that these scenes work as well as they do.
In the other big pleasant surprise of the movie, Bianca, a singer who is slowly losing her hearing, is upgraded to a quasi-co-staring role. It’s nice to see the patronizing and deeply sexist “worried boxer’s wife” trope thrown out the window here with a female character that matters deeply both thematically and plot-wise. Like Viktor, the career-focused Bianca strongly mirrors Creed in many ways and the film hurts from the failure to fully explore her own musical career.
And therein lies the biggest problems with the movie.
There’s enough here for me to infer motivations and themes about our characters, but the film has a uniquely desperate need for an extra half hour to flesh out its story fully. Besides just keeping Creed 2 from becoming the great film it could have been, these unexplored themes sap the emotional backing from the movie and make it so much harder to care about or understand these characters as I did in the first one.
If Creed 2’s struggles ended there I’d still probably place this film in my top 10 on the year. Compared to the first Creed though, there was an obvious drop off in quality that consistently pulled the movie down throughout. Thus, the difference between a good and great version of this movie. Rather than this being a typical case of a sophomore-slump due to laziness or missing identity, however, I think it’s fair to place a lot of the blame simply on the loss of writer/director Ryan Coogler (who was busy making Black Panther). Coogler succeded in the original Creed because of his ability to synthesize the feel of an epic popcorn movie with a deeply personal style of filmmaking. Dramatic long takes and a vividly shot Philidelphia were adeptly combined with brilliantly natural dialogue and then melded together with the ringing sound of a magnificent musical composition.
So while new director Steven Caple Jr. most definitely has a great deal of talent and more than shows it throughout, in comparison to the original it’s just a level below (although it’s important to note that the screenplay, which is penned by Stallone and Juel Taylor instead of Coogler is also a large reason for the tonal failures). There’s a somber quietness to much of the movie that, while still mostly entertaining to watch, makes the film oddly robotic at times and robs it of the humorous and cathartic feeling that defines prime Rocky movies.
And while the score (by the typically great Ludwig Göransson) and soundtrack (a solid collection of rap songs produced by Mike Will Made-It and featuring a who’s who list of artists) are expectedly strong, their usage was somewhat lacking and failed to carry with it the same awesome majesty of the first Creed. Underrated primarily because of a small sample size, for now, I seriously think Coogler’s work with Göransson (as shown by Fruitvale Station and Black Panther) has proven strongly reminiscent of Speilberg’s partnership John Williams.
Similarly lacking are the boxing scenes. While still enthralling and horrifying to witness, they suffer somewhat from a lack of ambitions and talent on Caple’s behalf who relies too heavily on quick cuts and reactions shots to stitch together the dramatic punch that came so easily to Coogler. At the risk of sounding like a broken record though, I just needed to say again just how damn intense these fight ended up being to me even despite some of my problems with them. Sound-mixing is rarely something that’s noticeable in a movie but my god if the ferocious orchestra of sounds inside the rings didn’t dramatically help the boxing scenes that were obviously missing the expert choreographical eye of Ryan Coogler. The sound mixer Damian Canelos (who a quick IMDB search told me was also the mixer on the terrifying-sounding Cloverfield movie) is total, 100% deserving of the Oscar this year. The sickening crunch of bones and smack of skin on skin made me feel every punch right to my inner core and in turn, aging me a good 10 years and creating one of the more R-rated pg-13 movies I’ve ever seen.
Reading through my review I realized it sounded more critical than my experience truly was. I guess that’s always the nature of a B+ movie: you like it enough that you can see the glittering mountain top and the bitter sting of missed opportunities becomes stronger on your tongue. But who am I kidding though? I loved watching this movie just like I love this franchise, and I know I’ll be back in theaters for a rewatch within the month. Because despite its pitfalls Creed 2 brings what it needs to. Great performances, soapy-but grounded melodrama, orchestral thunder, and some truly fantastic moments. And if this really is Rocky’s last rodeo, what a rodeo it’s been.
Adonis Creed and Co., what a show.