For a movie that ticks all the boxes Creed II is a huge miscalculation.
An engaging one if that, the sequel is something more akin to (while somewhat loathe to use this comparison) what The Last Jedi might have been had Rian Johnson stuck to the formula that had hitherto worked. And Johnson didn’t, because it probably wouldn’t have gelled so strongly this time, nor did it here.
The Last Jedi is a very flawed film, but it is not flawed because the creative team pushed it in new directions, the absence of which could otherwise have felt like a familiar reworking of it’s original trilogy counterpart ala The Force Awakens. This is not to say The Force Awakens is a bad film, far from it. Like Creed, incidentally released within weeks of each other, Episode VII gave us a familiar narrative we could rally around while introducing us to new characters with different motivations still reckoning with the legacy of their forbears.
Creed and The Force Awakens are made up in large tracts of carbon re-enactments of those earlier iterations, seldomly necessary to ground us in our new era but bearing the promise of their inevitable follow-ups delivering something new; not this generation’s own version of a Rocky classic or The Empire Strikes Back but more fundamentally our chance to experience the thrill which our own forbears felt those decades ago.
For all it’s flaws The Last Jedi gave us something new and welcomely unpredictable; Creed II (mostly) has not.
An amalgam of that explored in Rocky II, III, IV and indeed V, the stated inspiration for this venture draws heavily from the fourth outing where Sylvester Stallone returned to take on the Soviet Union, as his other synonymous creation went on to do in Rambo III; ill-advisedly dedicated to one particularly none too popular group right now. With former opponent Ivan Drago (Sydney University Masters of Chemical Engineering Graduate Dolph Lundgren then in his breakthrough role) returning to the US, he brings his son Viktor (Romanian boxer Florian Munteanu) to challenge Adonis Creed (a returning and ever-excellent Michael B. Jordan).
As far as nostalgia goes there are no better opponents for a showdown and that is where the film falters.
Predictable by and large, if you’ve seen the bulk of the Rocky movies you how this is going to play out as we rewind and repeat whole segments and narrative arcs from the time Stallone was front and centre. This is absent what made the series as a whole and most blatantly Rocky IV appealing; the films’ brazenness and appeals to very core Americanisms. Rocky IV has been roundly dismissed as an aberration and tonally distinct hodgepodge of western propaganda but it is one of the most important stages for the characters in the saga and for all its brew-ha-ha it is genuinely stirring as Rocky loses yet another rock in his life and attempts to still forge forward in the ring; the only way he knows how.
The complete absence of such obvious nationalistic sentiment of the like is not unsurprising in the current climate but renders so many key moments bereft of the spirit that in the hands of Director Ryan Coogler (here returning as Producer) in Creed still so underlay the story as Adonis against expectations and his own demons strove for greatness. This is most obvious in the heedless replica of Rocky IV’s endlessly-parodied training sequence later in the film. As insane as this sequence was even in 1985 (don’t get me wrong this is one of the best eras of filmmaking) absent the likes of those calls to rally behind Rocky that so complemented the series’ zero-to-hero maxims, wherefore rendering it a boldened and ceaselessly replicated style unto itself, the equivalent montage here emerges as Creed II’s tonally confused and regretfully most forgettable scene.
Yes it is important that the series goes in new directions but this cache has always been it’s lifeblood as, however far the Star Wars canon has strayed from it’s heights, the simple words “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” encapsulate that which brought fans back time and time again in spite of the type of lax and tried storytelling techniques that are readily on display here. Where this telling could just as well and for greater effect have deviated in tone and style was how the rumbles play out or in the binary relationship between the opponents which is ill-explored here given all the theatrics that ensue, rather than diverting from the focus on broadly-realised, overtly political Americanisms that has characterised every successive entry.
Creed II similarly steers clear of any opportunity to explore or mirror the state of US-Russia relations following the series’ first dive into this 32 years ago and amidst a time where, as with the first Creed film, the sequel has the ability to stand as a testament to America’s current standing and indeed what it stands for. Yes this is all starting to sound a bit grandiose and ultimately Rocky is about those ten rounds in the ring but this series and sports films moreover have rarely ever succeeded, as they so have under Stallone’s helm, for a sole focus on a bout.
A brief interlude in Russia gives us little explanation of the wider context this story plays out in while we learn precious little about Ivan and son, save some brief glimpses into their life in Ukraine, because moving from Russia to Ukraine is apparently meant to be a punishing or something. Most interesting in Creed II is the exploration of the pair’s relationship with more than one supremely moving moment in the final stages befitting Lundgren’s long-anticipated return to perhaps his most iconic role. The ever so little we glean about Viktor and his internal quandaries is too riveting yet barely explored given the predominant focus on Rocky and co, with Tessa Thompson also returning and likewise on form.
Ultimately a film about four very different relationships between fathers and their children, the best moment is owned by Jordan yet comes only at the very end. This author is not generally an advocate for flicks stating their own morals but the Rocky films invariably do this early on and in such a sincere manner that it emerges endearing rather than objectively frustrating and too helps set the series’ distinguishing tone. Jordan’s Creed does this in a manner roundly sincere and heartfelt and for the benefit of our investment could easily have come earlier in the movie had Creed II managed to assuredly grasp that same emphatic trajectory of its precursors.
It is at this juncture that the film and its key character attempt ala The Last Jedi to break away from their legacy and forge one of their own and it is Creed II’s stand-out vignette; yet amidst a hesitancy to so greatly diverge from that passed throughout its run this most powerful of the sequel’s moments can only resonate so strongly.
Creed II is in cinemas now