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Rocky Balboa defeated Ivan Drago at the end of Rocky IV, and his punch-drunk victory speech—where he talked about warming relations between the Americans and Soviets—was a hamfisted metaphor for the possibilities of perestroika. Creed II also features the Drago family, and if it had followed suit, it would have involved Ivan attempting to blackmail Rocky with a pee tape. Unfortunately, the screenplay co-written by Sylvester Stallone is nowhere near that playful or subversive. This sequel to the singular Creed is a Rocky movie in the worst sense of the word. At every possible turn, it forces otherwise complex characters into a clunky, by-the-numbers sequel. And when it is time for the boxing action, the safe formal choices drain the victories of any real sense of triumph.
You will recall that Creed was written and directed by Ryan Coogler, a talented young filmmaker who went on to make Black Panther. Coogler is back in this film, but only as a producer, and his absence is acutely felt. Now Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is one-dimensional, driven by his sense of pride. After winning the heavyweight boxing title, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) emerge from obscurity to challenge Adonis. This is a grudge match, since Ivan notoriously killed Adonis’ father Apollo (Carl Weathers) in the ring. Adonis accepts, ignoring the caution from his trainer Rocky (Stallone), and without really consulting his fiancée Bianca (Tessa Thompson). The first bout with Viktor ends brutally, but without a definitive conclusion, so Creed II is about whether Adonis can overcome his hardships and step into the ring with Viktor again.
Ivan and Viktor Drago are compelling characters because they say so little. They are driven by hatred and resentment: we learn that Ivan’s country and wife abandoned him after he lost to Rocky. They are not sympathetic, exactly, but their motivations are recognizably human. Adonis, on the other hand, has little semblance to the person he was in the first film. The cracks start to show when he accepts the first Viktor fight. Here he is bullheaded and foolish, but Coogler had originally written Adonis to be a thoughtful, sensitive, even kind. Not only does Adonis not consult Bianca before accepting the fight, but his decision barely registers with her. There is no argument, and the couple are hardly seen as equals. Not even strong actors like Jordan and Thompson can elevate this rote material.
Stallone, along with his co-screenwriter Juel Taylor, also misunderstand the nostalgia surrounding the Rocky character. He has been a part of the cultural landscape for over 40 years, and while he is a welcomed face, there is little to explore with an ex-fighter in the twilight of his life. There are several moments in Creed II where the story cuts away from ostensibly dramatic Adonis moments, just so we can see another lumbering, tortured scene about Rocky and his lifetime of regret. Not only does this approach stretch Stallone’s limited talent, but it slows down Creed II to a crawl. Perhaps the subtext behind these frequent Rocky scenes are due to Stallone’s inherent vanity: now that Coogler is out, he has an opportunity to make the sequel more about him.
All these missteps and failed opportunities would be immaterial if the film delivered the goods with its training montages and fight scenes, but director Steven Caple Jr. lacks the imagination or patience for any real suspense. Rocky IV had a memorable cross-cutting training montage, with Rocky in the Russian forest and Ivan using high-tech gym equipment. There is a similar contrast in Creed II—now Adonis is in the dessert—but the thrust of the montage suggests little change to his resolve or conditioning. The fight scenes are downright perfunctory: Caple Jr. films them like an HBO special, without his editing or rhythm creating a sense of inertia. Real boxing requires ongoing commentary because no one quite knows the outcome of the fight. Creed II has a predetermined ending, so a filmmaker should be able to make choices so that we could hypothetically follow who is winning and losing sans commentary. In Creed II, the action is so aimless that the commentary is not just helpful. It is mandatory.
Sylvester Stallone supposedly loves these characters, and yet each easy, predictable narrative choice leads to a depressing realization: In this latest effort, the Rocky formula matters more than the characters in it.
Creed II opens Friday in theaters everywhere.