Written by: Valerie Kalfrin, CC2K Staff Writer
Fathers, sons, and legacies run throughout Creed II, a film that, like its main character, keeps one foot in the past while swinging toward its future.
Creed in 2015 rebooted the Rocky franchise by shifting everyone’s favorite underdog boxer, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), from restaurateur to mentor to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther), an up-and-coming fighter and the son of Rocky’s late friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Adonis, or Donnie, was all pent-up energy and fire, drawn to fighting even before he knew his lineage. Creed was as much about him embracing his history as it was proving his worth, and it was a knockout in characterization and chemistry, both between Jordan and Stallone and Jordan and Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) as Bianca, a singer and musician who became Donnie’s girlfriend.
In Creed II, Donnie still can’t step out of his father’s shadow, even though he wins the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World. He barely has time to enjoy a celebratory Philly cheese steak with Bianca before boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby, The Hate U Give) baits him publicly with a showdown against Viktor Drago (boxer Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu). Cement worker by day, Viktor is the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, the upcoming Aquaman), the Russian boxer who killed Apollo in the ring in 1985’s Rocky IV.
Rocky, guilt-ridden over not stopping that fight when he feels he should have, warns Donnie against the matchup. Ivan, who wakes Viktor with a punch to the chest before training every morning, sees this as redemption for his own loss to Rocky. Marcelle sees dollar signs. “The belt ain’t enough. You need a narrative,” he tells Adonis.
Bianca and Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, TV’s Empire), who raised Donnie as her own son after his mother died, see nothing but trouble. Adonis wants to do this anyway, lending some predictability to the plot’s early moments.
But the script by Stallone and Juel Taylor, with additional story credit to Sascha Penn (TV’s Power) and Cheo Hodari Coker (producer and writer of Netflix’s Luke Cage), finds depth and dimension in the characters as the film progresses. It also includes some intriguing and heartwarming surprises.
Director Steven Caple Jr. (TV’s Class, Grown-ish), taking over from Creed’s Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), who serves as an executive producer this time, films some of the fighting from Adonis’s point of view, adding intimacy beyond the close-ups and bone-cracking noises. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau films the Dragos in steel blues, contrasting Viktor’s spartan background against the warmth of Donnie and Bianca’s home life and the glitz and showmanship of professional boxing.
Bianca and Mary Anne are strong characters in their own right, each, like Rocky, pushing Adonis to pinpoint what really drives him into the ring. Jordan looks spectacular, whether hitting a heavy bag or a stack of tires, or showing Donnie’s vulnerability. He and Thompson have a lovely, affectionate rapport as they deal with their evolving relationship, his crisis of confidence, and her character’s hearing loss.
Wood Harris (Blade Runner 2049), returning as Tony “Little Duke” Burton, son of Apollo’s longtime trainer, becomes a key figure this time in Donnie’s corner. But the story’s heart once again involves the relationship between Rocky and Adonis, who calls the ex-fighter his uncle. Everyone knows these guys need each other, even as Donnie claims he doesn’t.
Stallone, who won a Golden Globe and earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in Creed, finds low-key wit and grace in the advice he gives, half the time clutching a pork pie hat. He’s an earnest father figure to Adonis while dealing with an estrangement from his own son, which adds a special poignancy.
Creed II naturally includes several training montages, and the climactic fight creates genuine suspense. (The audience in my screening gasped and cheered plenty.) It’s a shame that Donnie, who already feels the weight of others’ expectations, has to fight an opponent with so much of his father’s baggage. But the film explores well enough how much of the past shapes who we become, and with Jordan, Thompson, and Stallone, it creates an endearing onscreen family.
Valerie Kalfrin is a multiple award-winning journalist, film and culture critic, essayist, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She’s a “Tomatometer-approved” critic on RottenTomatoes.com and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Hollywood Reporter, The Script Lab, Script magazine, ScreenCraft, The Guardian, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere.