The Rocky formula is potent in Creed 2

Michael B. Jordan returns in this Stallone-written revamp of Rocky IV.

Jacob ‘Stitch’ Duran, Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan and Wood Harris in Creed 2

It seems absurd that something a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone wrote in order to give himself something to star in 40+ years ago continues to grow. From the other side of the street, it seems increasingly improbable that the Rocky franchise grew from such humble beginnings. The series has long shed its roughshod underdog mentality — since the first film, in fact — in order to become a bracing-yet-repetitive celebration of the human spirit in a way that’s comforting in its absolute lack of risk-taking. In other words, you always know what you’re gonna get with a Rocky movie — the only question is exactly how much of it they’re willing to give you, and how much of that you’re willing to take.

Ryan Coogler’s Creed was kind of an outlier in that respect. The first film not written by Stallone, it attempted to shift the focus away from the increasingly geriatric Italian Stallion towards a younger boxer… only to basically mimic the first Rocky film beat for beat. I think the original Creed is a pretty good example of a lack of imagination well-realized. It’s a movie that has a lot of personality and texture considering how much of its path was already so clearly traced in the sand. I also think that the first Creed should have been taken as an opportunity to go sideways (at the very least), but unfortunately Creed 2 is more of the obsessively reverent same. Gone is Coogler, replaced by indie director Steven Caple Jr. (who made the well-regarded but little-seen indie The Land). On the other hand, Stallone is back in the writer’s seat, co-credited with the screenplay alongside Juel Taylor.

The plundered grave this time around is that of Rocky IV, the bombastic piece of Cold War propaganda that many consider the best (or most) Rocky movie. Since the events of the first film, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has become the world champion. The new-found fame and glory has prompted a move to Los Angeles, where his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) can also count on furthering her musical career. It means Creed can no longer train under Rocky Balboa (Stallone) in Philly, but their separation is short-lived as Creed’s win brings Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) out of the woodwork. The pair have been living in semi-exile in Ukraine ever since Drago Sr. killed Creed’s father Apollo in the ring, only to later be defeated on his home turf by Balboa himself. Drago wants revenge, and he intends to get it by having his monstrously enormous son fight the considerably less monstrous Creed, thereby returning glory to Mother Russia.

Creed 2 does not afford the Dragos much in the way of psychology. They’re angry and vindictive and that’s about it; snarling one-note commie baddies that threaten to erase whatever nuance is scattered elsewhere in the film. Thankfully, the Dragos aren’t in it much, squandering an opportunity to give Lundgren (whose acting ability has moved from “potential” to “palpable” over the last three decades) a comeback arc like the one afforded to Stallone in the first Creed. The younger Drago barely speaks at all; despite the so-called rich and complicated history of sins of the father being bandied about, there’s little in the way of character development here. They’re fighting the Russians because they fought the Russians 30 years ago, and everything old is new again.

Similarly, much of Creed’s motivations are simply born of passing familiarity with the franchise. There’s certainly a measure of self-awareness in the way the film works to reopen old wounds (though it stops short of literally reopening old wounds, which is the kind of thing that I would maybe have expected from this movie) but from a purely psychological point-of-view, Creed 2 doesn’t have much more to say about the nature of competition, of pushing yourself to be the best you you can be, and so on. On the flipside, it finds quite a lot to say about Creed’s personal life. Creed 2 puts more emphasis on his relationship with Bianca and (mild spoiler alert, I guess) their new-found parenthood. If revenge and competitive triumph is the major theme of Creed 2, stepping up and assuming your own maturity is a surprisingly rich secondary one.

Caple Jr., offers more of a straightforward, less textured approach to the material. Where Coogler’s film very much resembled the down-to-the-ground style of Fruitvale Station, Caple Jr. has made a bigger, brighter and more overtly commercial one — perhaps mirroring the move between Rocky and Rocky IV. (I’m not sure why the other two have been removed — we’re missing out on the hardcore action of Michael B. Jordan fighting whoever the 2018 equivalent of Mr. T is!) The series works best when class is the primary issue at play; the more successful and famous the protagonist of a Rocky film gets, the less interesting its themes become.

What’s certain is that, for all of its flaws, Creed 2 certainly is rousing and effective in the most basic manner. When Creed is training (in a particularly weird training montage out in the desert where he appears to do Peckinpah-inspired crossfit), when the Rocky theme kicks in, when Balboa talks about Adrian… it’s hard to fully take the filmmakers to task for sticking to such a rigid recipe when that recipe works. ■

Creed 2 opens in theatres on Friday, Nov 21. Watch the trailer here: