CREED II Review: A Lovable Mess

Stallone manages to not blow it. But he comes pretty close.

Creed II doesn’t have much reason to exist since everyone’s basic arcs were explored and completed in the first film. You’re not going to top Adonis’ emotional journey toward accepting his legacy, nor are you going to put Rocky through anything close to beating cancer and accepting a new family into his empty life.

But these are great characters and there’s money to be made. So now we have Creed II, a movie that doesn’t have much to do or say, but manages to entertain all the same just out of pure charisma. The basic tenets of the Rocky series are almost elementally enjoyable; as long as the foundations are honored, it’s nearly impossible to make a bad one. Creed II is a middle-quality entry, right there around Rocky II and the unfairly maligned Rocky V. It’s a messy film that has the misfortune of following a straight-up masterpiece. I also cried three times and spent the whole final boxing match leaning forward in my seat.

Speaking of Rocky II, it’s probably no surprise Creed II shares so much in common with that first sequel. There are wedding bells, baby wails, and an extended period of time in which Adonis languishes in a psychological lurch about reentering the ring. Some of the details are different, but there are parts where you almost expect Rocky to claim “I know how you’re feeling, kid. I went through this in part two.”

Rocky II has some built in benefits Creed II lacks, however. For one, Rocky finds himself in real need of money. For two, his ultimate loss to Apollo in their first fight means a rematch at least offers some logical sense, even if it kind of goes against the first film’s themes. Rocky really does try to retire and live a normal life. It just turns out he can’t.

Creed II never makes this case about Adonis. It attempts something along such lines but the emotions behind the attempt remain murky and unconvincing. When Ivan Drago and his beefy son Viktor show up to challenge Adonis, his inability to say no never quite makes sense. This all hurts the film because without proper justification, Adonis’ bullheaded pride and concern for legacy ends up just making him look like an asshole, especially when he’s targeting poor old Rocky. Another demerit: Rocky himself as almost nothing to do in the film and is in it a bit less than you might expect.

Leading up to release, I’ve been down on this film as Rocky IV is probably my least favorite entry in the series and returning to its plot like this felt a lot like typical Stallone hubris, which usually isn’t a good thing. I am shocked to report that the Dragos are the film’s best element. While Rocky and Adonis’ stories don’t really have anywhere to go, Creed II delivers its more interesting plot on the side. The almost wordless relationship between Ivan and Viktor is compelling, emotional and surprisingly complex, taking the series’ most cartoonish, one-note villain and turning him into a somewhat tragic figure with a full life behind his eyes. When Adonis goes head-to-head with Viktor, you feel genuine concern for both of them, as they are both each other’s villains for complicated reasons that have nothing to do with the ring.

The back to basics nature of Creed II means we get a lot less technical boxing action and training. There’s a rousing training montage near the end, but it is just that: a montage, which is typical of the series but also a disappointment in terms of how little Rocky and Adonis interact here and how little we understand the goals and reasoning behind Adonis’ new form of training. Like in Rocky III, Adonis needs to amend his fighting style to take on an opponent like Drago. The film moves too fast to fully explore or explain it, however. There are sadly a lot of elements like this, things mentioned but not felt.

On the other hand, it is a great training montage, and it leads to a great end fight. Director Seven Cable Jr. can’t come close to the energy and ferocity Ryan Coogler brought to Creed, and smartly he doesn’t even try. These don’t need to be directed by auteurs to succeed, and Cable delivers what he needs to without getting in the film’s way. I don’t know that this is an objectively good movie, but it is a fine Rocky movie.

I can see myself watching Creed II a couple more times in the near future and then very rarely after that, which is more or less in keeping with my enjoyment of Rocky II. It’s hard to imagine them making another one of these without the benefit of a truly captivating and original villain or, what the heck, another eight-to-ten-year break.