WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for director Stephen Caple Jr.'s Creed II, in theaters now.
Arriving in theaters nationwide today, Creed II has so far met with positive reviews, as the Rocky formula of gritty underdog defying the odds appears destined to score another knockout with critics and audiences.
What seems to be the only blow to the latest installment is its lack of originality: The "critics' consensus" on Rotten Tomatoes sums up the sentiment perfectly, stating that "Creed II's adherence to franchise formula adds up to a sequel with few true surprises, but its time-tested generational themes still pack a solid punch."
That statement holds plenty of truth. In its approach to a franchise that's been churning out films for more than 40 years, Creed II pulls some punches. Still, it lands the haymakers that matter most. In terms of nostalgia and popcorn entertainment, the sequel thrives.
The story of Creed II follows the safe and secure blueprint that made the original Rocky series so popular. The protagonist takes a fight for the wrong reasons, and then fails, only to rediscover his competitive edge and come back triumphant. For a franchise built with the cornerstones of nostalgia and character, that isn't something to be criticized. In fact, it should have been expected as soon as iconic antagonist Ivan Drago was tipped as the main attraction.
In a sense, Creed II is a rehash of Rocky IV, just like the first Creed echoed the original Rocky. Both were successful, yet each represented a different purpose. In an effort to create a new spark, Creed brought new characters and different challenges for a film driven by superb acting from Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and Sylvester Stallone. Resting as it does on the laurels of the first film that brought back the fanbase, Creed II didn't need the same narratives. Much like Rocky IV, the film takes an already-established franchise and lets the characters and the proven story arc handle the rest. With Drago at the center, the film didn't require much else.
Rocky's story has lived on for decades, fueled by nostalgia, and Creed II director Stephen Caple Jr. ran with it. Viewers will get to enjoy a face-off between old rivals in Rocky and Drago, the latter of whom retains an intimidating presence that he has passed down to his son. On memory alone, Drago's son Viktor is a solid antagonist, because we know that, like his father, his quiet demeanor translates into a deafening fury in the ring. As most would predict, Rocky shies away from the prospect of reliving Creed vs. Drago, because he attaches tragedy to the headline. Without Rocky, Jordan's Adonis Creed has no chance. Of course he doesn't. Still, despite its predictability, Caple spices things up, allowing Creed to keep the heavyweight belt due to a disqualification of Drago after he pummels his opponent while he's already down. When it's Creed's time for redemption, there's a split second when the viewer suspects the film might take a new route, and Creed will choose his health and his family over his pride. Instead, it's Drago who takes the somewhat unexpected turn, choosing his son's safety over victory, something Rocky failed to do for Apollo Creed.
The anticipated training sequence also delivers, and belongs up there with the best of the films. With Rocky back in his corner, Creed heads to the heat of the desert, a direct contrast to the chill of Russia, where Rocky trained to take on Drago more than 30 years earlier. The music finds a harmonious blend of modernity and tradition, especially when Creed is running through the desert, with Rocky cheering him on. All the while, the superb acting and overwhelming chemistry between Jordan and Thompson carry the story through its nods to the past, as they capture a dynamic that exceeds even that of Rocky and his wife Adrian, back when they were starting their lives together in Rocky II.
If anything, Creed II leaves even more nostalgia to be desired. Few words are exchanged between Drago and Rocky, but when they are, everything else around them fades into the background. Drago is one of the most formidable characters in the franchise, and is treated as such. Why wouldn't the film be treated in the same regard? The aspect of Adonis Creed and his career trajectory holds just enough newness that the rest of the film can drive forward by looking backward, which is easy to enjoy when it's seen for what it is. The first Creed was about originality; Creed II is intended as pure entertainment.
Was Creed II a missed chance at something new? Perhaps. But once the cast for the film was revealed, it should have been expected to be exactly what it was teased to be. In that sense, the film was another knockout.
Creed II is directed by Stephen Caple Jr. (The Land) from a script written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor. The film stars Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, and Phylicia Rashad. The film is out in theaters everywhere now.