CREED II Goes the Distance [Blu Review]

Creed II is available on digital and 4K/DVD/Blu release.

In hindsight, Creed seems like an inevitability. Of course the next (last?) step in Rocky Balboa’s arc would be to go from the one in the ring to the one in the corner, guiding a young boxer just as Mickey did for him (Rocky V even feinted in that direction before…you know…sucking). And of course the best way to wring some extra juice out of that set-up would be to have Rocky’s protégé be a descendant of his fierce rival/eventual teacher/best friend, Apollo Creed.

But, man, I can still remember the trepidation I felt when Creed was announced. And even when the first footage came out and looked excellent, that worry never fully went away. After all, Rocky Balboa in 2006 had seemed miracle enough, with Sylvester Stallone bringing the series out of mothballs and overcoming a decade-plus long cold streak (give or take a Copland here and there) to bring his signature character to a solid, well-considered end. Was it really worth tempting fate to bring Rocky back again? And this new guy Ryan Coogler only had one movie under his belt. Who the hell was he to wrestle the Rocky saga away from its primary author and leading man? The audacity! Was there any possible way for this dude to live up to the insane bar he’d just set for himself?

Welp, not only did Coogler clear the bar, he did like a 360 pirouette backflip in mid-air (I’m not a gymnastics guy) and delivered in Creed a masterpiece, the kind of once-in-a-career perfect grand slam that Coogler then promptly replicated on a galactic scale with last year’s Black Panther. And with that, Creed went from a postscript to an inevitability.

‘Inevitable’ applies to a lot of Creed II. Of course they had to do a sequel. And of course the sequel is going to find young Adonis “Donnie” Creed (played once again by Michael B. Jordan) squaring off against Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, returning from Rocky IV), the man who killed his father in the ring.

Creed II never quite transcends that feeling of inevitability the way the original Creed did, but if director Steven Caple Jr.’s sequel is a step-down in quality from the original, it’s just about the smallest descent possible. Entertaining and satisfying on its own merits, Creed II is also deeply moving in the broader context of the Rocky and Creed films, a first-rate sports film that might just get your entire household cheering.

Three years after the events of the first film, Creed II opens with Adonis on top of the world. He has just claimed the World Heavyweight Champion belt once held by both his father and Rocky, and he and longtime girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) have decided to get married. But unbeknownst to Adonis and his circle of friends and family, trouble is brewing on the other side of the world. Humiliated by Rocky and forsaken by his country, Ivan Drago seethes with resentment and plots to restore his standing and legacy in the world. He has trained his son Viktor (Romanian boxer/brick shithouse Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu) into a seemingly-indestructible juggernaut, and no sooner has Adonis won the belt then the Dragos show up in the streets of Philly and start issuing a challenge.

If you’ve seen a Rocky movie before (hell, if you’ve seen any movie before) you can probably map-out the beats Creed II is going to hit over the course of its runtime. But the script, by Stallone and Cheo Hodari Coker (Luke Cage), is canny in the way it plays both too and against expectations. Everyone expected this film to be a retread of Rocky IV (and to be clear: it is), but Creed II actually speed-runs through pretty much every single other Rocky movie as well, rehashing and remixing various elements in all new combinations. The result has both the warm familiarity of an old favorite and the energy of something fresh and vital.

One area in which Creed II thankfully blazes a new path away from its predecessors: It doesn’t fuck up the central couple the way the Rocky sequels did. Rocky is such a masterpiece in large part because the love story between Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire) is so tender, so beautifully realized between the two performers. The sequels immediately turned Adrian into a whiny wet-blanket stick-in-the-mud, an obstacle Rocky always had to overcome to self-actualize into his punchingest best self, and it wasn’t until the franchise killed Adrian off in Rocky Balboa that she was finally allowed even a measure of her old dignity back.

Creed was also centered around a beautifully-realized love story, but Creed II strengthens and enriches both the character of Bianca and her bond with Adonis. Bianca continues to be a well-defined character in her own right, with dreams, desires, and a point of view independent of Adonis and his drama. Both characters are sorely tested as a couple and as individuals, and Jordan and Thompson continue to be absolute magic together. Bianca and Adonis are vulnerable around each other in a way they cannot be with anyone else, but that vulnerability is its own kind of strength, something both performers understand and inhabit. There’s a wrenching moment midway through the film in which both characters come to a heart-breaking realization, a realization they come to while looking silently at one another, separated by a sheet of glass. That this sequence works so well is a testament to Jordan and Thompson, their life together the True North that the rest of the film follows.

(Sidenote: Creed II also does largely right by Phylicia Rashad, regal as ever as Apollo’s widow and Adonis’ adoptive mother. I didn’t clock it, but it feels like she has twice the lines and screen-time as in Creed, including a quiet conversation with Thompson that says so much about the burden of being a woman in love with a man in love with fighting.)

For his part, Stallone slips back into Rocky Balboa like a second skin. When it was announced that Stallone was taking over scripting duties for this sequel, I worried that he’d pull the focus onto himself rather than honoring the new path Coogler and his team blazed. Nah. Rocky is still very much a supporting figure in Adonis’ journey, even if that journey does cause Rocky to reevaluate the choices he has made and the mistakes that have haunted him through the years. Both Rocky Balboa and Creed served as perfect swan songs for the character, but there’s something about the place where Creed II leaves Rock that feels just about perfect. If this truly is the last time we will see Stallone as Rocky Balboa, and he sure seems to mean it this time, it’s hard to imagine a better, more fitting departure for this icon.

But the secret weapon in Creed II’s arsenal is Lundgren. Time has sculpted the former He-Man’s face from chiseled marble into a character actor’s mug, able to convey decades’ of rage and longing with a furrowed eyebrow. Ivan Drago was a .5 dimensional character in Rocky IV, an Aryan terminator who may as well have wiped his ass with the American flag while stomping orphans to death. Creed II turns this cartoon monster into an aching, empathetic person, and the resolution of his storyline with Viktor is the most surprising (and surprisingly affective) material in the film (even if there’s a few too many nudge-nudge callbacks. One reference to “I must break you” would’ve done the trick, Creed II has like four).

That’s in keeping with the spirit of the franchise, though. Rocky forgave Mick and Paulie and kept them as part of his team; he and Apollo overcame their differences and became not only allies but best friends; hell, even Rocky Balboa took the time to show Rock being kind to ol’ Spider Rico, their days of beating the tar out of each other in low-rent matches long behind them. They may all center around people beating each other to bloody pulp, but there’s a kindness to the Rocky, and now Creed, films that permeates across the decades (part of why Rocky V is so glaringly awful [besides just the whole ‘lack of being good’ thing] is the film is just a nasty piece of work, to the point that it starts to feel outright masochistic), and Creed II takes this to the absolute extreme by daring to give perhaps the franchise’s greatest monster his day in the sun.

As the new Drago, Munteanu is as physically imposing (and tight-lipped) as Dolph was back in IV. Caple Jr. doesn’t reinvent cinematic boxing scenes to the extent that Coogler did, but he does shoot and cut the hell out of both the fights and the training montages, of which there are several. Composer Ludwig Göransson (a recent Oscar winner thanks to his work on Black Panther) returns and continues to do a masterful job weaving the classic Bill Conti music into the modern themes of the Creed films. Creed II runs over two hours but it never feels slow or repetitive, no matter how many times you watch a shirtless Jordan push himself to some new physical extreme.

(Sidenote: That girl who snapped her retainer from clenching too hard at Jordan’s shirtless scene in Black Panther…she may want to sit this one out.)

It’s a handsome film, continuing the original film’s down-to-earth aesthetic while heightening things juuuuuuust enough to make characters like Ivan Drago palatable (it’s still so funny to me that these Creed movies restored Rocky Balboa to his hard-scrabble roots…by being direct sequels to the most cartoonish entry in the entire series). There’s a stretch where Rocky takes Adonis into the desert for a classic montage that’s beautiful and scorching and utterly distinct from any other training montage in the series. That goes for a lot of Creed II: It’s playing familiar notes, but hitting them with such skill and style that you don’t necessarily mind that you know the tune. If anything, having an internal pacer only helps you better feel the flow of the story as it plays out.

The Blu-ray is a top shelf transfer, really letting you luxuriate in the handsome work done by Caple Jr. and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. A lot of home media releases go threadbare these days, but this disc includes a number of quality featurettes and some really strong deleted scenes. There’s one where Rocky speaks at Spider Rico’s funeral that would have been terrific in the movie proper (and actually resolve a minor gap in the plot), plus a post-final fight coda that puts a lovely cap to the Drago/Creed/Balboa rivalry. I assume these were cut for time, but it’s really nice to have them available.

Creed II does not reinvent the wheel, but nor does it seek to. This is rousing mainstream entertainment delivered with skill, style, and real personality. If this proves to be the last hurrah in the world of Rocky, it’s a poignant and deeply felt exit, an exceptional capstone to a 40-year legacy.

And if Jordan and his team want to keep going…well, I’m sure Clubber Lang’s got some whippersnappers eager for a title shot. I know I’ll be watching.

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