For all their triumphant simplicity, the original Rocky and the original Creed were what we used to just call “movies,” by which I mean Hollywood underdog fables told with sincerity and an attention to life as it’s actually lived. Creed II, like Rocky II, is something less. It’s a Rocky movie, just the latest go-round, its story more formulaic, its people less specific, its rhythms as wheezily familiar as a workout you should have changed up weeks ago. It’s a diminishment of Creed, a dumbing down, just as Rocky II was a diminishment of Rocky.
Its makers seem to think so little of viewers that they enlist, during all three of this sequel’s boxing matches, jabbering sportscasters who exhaustively explain to us every lunge and jab that we’ve just seen. “What a turn this fight’s taken!” they exclaim. “It all feels so Shakespearean!” they insist. Just a few minutes in, after Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, son of Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed from the original Rocky films, has won a no-sweat bout to become the heavyweight champ, an announcer tells us what Jordan’s acting has already made powerfully clear: “This is the first step to building a legacy of his own.” Imagine it: The filmmakers think you’re too dumb to follow the emotional thrust of a Rocky movie. If you play Creed II on your TV next Thanksgiving, your grandpa in another state could track every beat of the plot via speakerphone.
Not that any of this demands much thinking from you. (The first Creed was directed by Fruitvale Station’s Ryan Coogler, who went on to make Black Panther; The Land director Steven Caple Jr. handles this one with genre vigor but significantly less artistry.) The story concerns sort of a play date between the kids fathered by the first generation of Rocky boxers: Creed versus the son of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago, who in Rocky IV was built up as pretty much the most devastating weapon in the Soviet nuclear arsenal. He’s the one, you may recall, who killed Creed the First in the ring. (And if you don’t remember, well, those sportscasters will tell you again and again.) In the Rocky world, any mouthy upstart can get a fight against the heavyweight champ, so the mountainous Drago Jr. (Florian Munteanu) goes from hauling cinder blocks in a Ukrainian construction yard to a title match in the Barclays Center in about 20 minutes of screen time. The music turns ominous whenever we glimpse Ukrainian life, as if the place itself is de facto horrifying, but don’t expect anything like Rocky IV’s orgasmic nationalism. The national mood is too sour: The only way truly to pump Americans up for a fight with some broke-ass Ukrainian would be if the kid trained at a troll farm by punching Hefty bags filled with Hillary Clinton’s emails — and then lots of white Americans would be cheering for him.
So, the filmmakers go for the this-time-it’s-personal angle, with the new generation, like Jedi, doomed to refight the battles of their fathers. “My son will break your boy,” Lundgren’s still-terrifying Drago tells Rocky after hours at Adrian’s restaurant, just after giving a speech that begins, “Ever seen stray dogs in the Ukraine?” and it just gets dopier from there. It’s all ludicrous — and, unlike the soulful first Creed, meaningless. But, still, for all that, Creed II does have a pulse, even if you know almost everything that’s going to happen a couple of breaths before it does. The training sequences, always the series’ highlight, again build and build and peak in an endorphin rush, uncannily suggesting that incipient greatness is surging in you, too, right there in the theater. The climactic fight, too, is satisfyingly staged; people sitting near me in the theater gasped and sucked in their breath right along with the most brutal blows.
The showdowns are so striking, and filmed with persuasive clarity, that the relentless narration proves especially distracting. Imagine if some ’30s radio broadcasters cluttered up the soundtrack of Raiders of the Lost Ark by shouting, “He’s under the truck! I can’t believe it! He’s trailing behind it from a bullwhip! What a twist this chase has taken!” Much more powerful, perhaps, would have been the approach Bradley Cooper dared with A Star Is Born, in which we only once see an onstage moment from the perspective of the audience or media. Why not put us in the fighters’ trunks rather than the headspace of SportsCenter?
The cast remains terrific, with Jordan and that mopey ol’ lug Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) sharing a uniquely tender chemistry for leads in so masculine a franchise. Jordan also shines in playful romantic scenes with Creed’s love Bianca (actor and singer-songwriter Tessa Thompson), an R&B singer in the boho-groove mold of Kelela or Tinashe. Scenes involving an awkward marriage proposal and the pair’s uncertainty about starting a new shared life honor the work these two achieved in the first Creed, in which they made these archetypes convincing, compelling people. There’s a suspenseful thread concerning their fears of parenthood, and some developments I won’t spoil that I wish the filmmakers had devoted more screen time to. They can’t, of course. Everyone’s at the mercy of the usual Rocky plotting, the leads having to move the story along rather than show us what it’s like to live within it.
Stallone, meanwhile, rumbles amiably through his umpteenth Rocky. This time, he reveals little new except that the one-time champ still rolls out the dough each night at his Philly restaurant, and at home can’t focus enough to complain over the phone to the electric company and sort through his mail at the same time. Inevitably, Rocky sounds the complaint that every Stallone character makes in every Stallone movie: “I’m like some chunk of yesterday trying to be today. I don’t fit in.” Viewers eager to get back to Creed and Bianca might agree: The dude’s taking up too much space in a story that’s no longer his.