2015’s Creed had one very valuable asset in its corner: Ryan Coogler. The director of Fruitvale Station and (post-Creed) Black Panther is one of the biggest talents of his generation and somehow turned a very unpromising Rocky spin-off into a stunning, emotional movie to rival the 1977 classic that birthed it.
Creed II does not have Coogler. If it feels his loss, it’s only to a small degree. This is not the heavyweight the first film was, but it retains a lot of what made it great and mixes in a few somewhat cheesy, but not too whiffy, elements to make a sequel that is less surprising and more generic but still a huge amount of fun.
New director Steven Caple Jr., like Coogler before him, has a very short movie CV. His only feature credit is the 2016 skateboarding movie, The Land (we didn’t know it either). He doesn’t move far from Coogler’s style on the first film, but gives it a little more light, a bit of a burnished optimism in contrast to the first film’s grit and heaviness, to reflect Creed’s new circumstances.
Three years on from the first movie, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is now the world champion. He’s happily committed to Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and has every opportunity ahead of him. In a move the film recognises is a little silly, out of nowhere comes a challenge from Viktor Drago (a largely silent but highly intimidating Florian Munteanu), the son of the man who killed Creed’s father, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, doing a fair bit more acting than he did in Rocky IV).
The film becomes a story of sons trying to step out of their fathers’ shadows. Creed wants to defeat Drago to prove himself a worthy successor to his father, and in revenge for his dad’s death; Drago wants to win so that his father might finally respect him, because even giant punching machines need love. It’s pretty hokey, but Caple Jr. plays it straight and makes the emotional moments, which could easily be overwrought based on a script full of big speeches, work. Even Viktor’s journey, which is told in a few broad scenes and very few lines, is moving. Caple Jr’s fight scenes echo Coogler’s in style, but why fix what wasn’t broken?
The story gradually moves Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) to the sidelines. It’s shortchanging him, but gently pushing Creed to the fore, presumably in the hope that the series can continue without Stallone. He still gets some big moments, but he’s far more a supporting character rather than the co-lead he was in Creed.
This feels like Stallone handing over the gloves to Jordan and they’re going onto capable hands. Given the level of enjoyment to be had here and the charismatic, all-in performance by Jordan, Creed could go plenty more rounds on his own.