REVIEW: Creed II Succeeds Despite Its Formulaic Story

A direct sequel to 2015's Rocky spinoff Creed, Creed II continues to breathe new life into the venerable sports film franchise despite some stumbles along the way. The absence of original filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed the 2015 film and serves as an executive producer here while he was committed to helming this year's Black Panther, is felt throughout the film lacking his auteur-fueled vision and precision in delivery, but in the end, the sequel largely succeeds in spite of itself. Much of the film's success comes largely from its star performances from returning actors Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone and Tessa Thompson, all of whom reprise their roles with natural charisma despite the sequel's formulaic and predictable plot.

Taking place several years after the events of the original Creed, Adonis Creed has established himself as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, keeping on Rocky Balboa as a mentor and trainer even as he takes his relationship with Bianca to the next level. Just as he seems poised to emerge from his late father's shadow and build his own legacy, Cold War ghost Ivan Drago and his son emerge from the shadows to challenge the new champion. Incensed by the arrival of the man who killed his father in the ring over three decades ago, the stakes for Adonis' latest fight are now higher and more personal than ever before.

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If Coogler's 2015 film was thematically about the relationship between fathers and sons while forging one's own path, Creed II is about the misplaced raw feelings paternal figures can cause. Both of its central fighters are informed largely by unresolved pain. For Adonis, his motivations come from the absence of a father after Apollo Creed's death at the hands of Ivan Drago in 1985's Rocky IV, while Ivan's son Viktor faces an inverted form of this. His entire life was shaped directly by his father to become the ultimate fighting machine with no evident familial affection. That puts these two men on a hard-hitting collision course fueled by the usual training montages and pep talks, and while the inclusion of Drago certainly takes heavy cues from Rocky IV, this film is paced and thematically linked perhaps more strongly to 1982's Rocky III through the shared undertones of redemption and second chances.

Like virtually every film in the Rocky franchise, Creed II is not subtle about these underlying themes. One of the common observations about this year's Venom is that it felt like a superhero film made approximately ten years ago, with somewhat dated sensibilities and tone. With that analogy said, Creed II feels a Rocky sequel made approximately thirty years ago with its pacing, predictability, and cinematography. That can either be taken as a compliment or a criticism, depending on the viewer's stance on the older films, but it is here that Coogler's absence is most evident.

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Coogler's film completely reinvigorated a franchise long thought dead, to the surprise and critical acclaim of many, bringing previously unseen emotional depths to the film series along with some of the most well choreographed and tightly filmed fight sequences of any boxing film. In the sequel, everything feels a little made-to-order in terms of cinematography and pacing. The fight scenes certainly have a bone-crunching intensity that hasn't really been seen before in the franchise, but they also feel truncated and oddly understated in key moments during the film's climactic bout. While the first act of the sequel hits the ground running, the second act stumbles the most, running heavy on exposition and melodrama throwing off the momentum initially established but the film's breakneck opening.

Fortunately, Jordan, Stallone and Thompson all continue to impress in their respective roles, with Jordan in particular bringing new levels of vulnerability and emotional intensity to his eponymous character. Thompson doesn't, unfortunately, have as much to do as she did in the previous film, but she keep's Jordan's performance grounded. Meanwhile, Stallone continues to inhabit the role that first catapulted him into Hollywood over forty years ago with a charm that seems as natural as breathing for the veteran actor. And while Dolph Lundgren is a welcome, nostalgic return to the franchise that similarly began his own career, Ivan Drago was never an especially fully realized character. He does admittedly have more to do than glare and spout off pithy one liners, though not much more.

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In the end, Creed II is a solid, if completely formulaic, addition to the longest-running sports film series of all time. Despite a predictable script and workmanlike execution behind the camera, the cast elevates the material with their performances to craft another entertaining entry into the Rocky saga. Here's hoping a potential Creed III explores new territory instead of trading on nostalgia like this film.

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.

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