The major problem with Rocky spin-off sequel Creed II is the enemy is far more interesting than the titular hero and the film doesn’t know how to adjust for that to land the knockout blow.
As Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter said, “Nothing here has been freshly thought out, nor is there a drop of surprise as to the story’s trajectory, forcing the viewer to tolerate conventional emotional beats and stale plot contrivances.”
The pieces are all set up on the board for a smart sequel. An enviably ripped Michael B Jordan returns as newly crowned champ Adonis Creed, with the franchise’s Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as his still-loyal trainer.
The shadow of 1985’s Rocky IV – the one in which Rocky’s best friend and Adonis’ dad Apollo Creed died in a bloody bout with Soviet Union bruiser Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) – hangs heavy as a Balboa pronouncement.
Rocky’s ongoing guilt at not doing enough to prevent Apollo’s fate is an ongoing Creed theme, and old wounds are reopened when Ivan – fresh from ignominious exile in the Ukraine – shows up in Philadelphia, bruising for a fight.
But this time it’s Drago’s even more hulking son Viktor, played by real deal heavyweight fighter turned beefy model and actor Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu, who’s looking to keep up family traditions and bring down a Creed.
As the illegitimate son of Apollo, Adonis has a grudge to settle. Scared of history repeating, Rocky wants him to walk away. It drives a wedge between the men.
The conflict is amped up when Apollo’s newly minted deaf fiancée Bianca (Tessa Thompson) falls pregnant. All she wants is a father for her kid, the father the younger Creed never had.
You can see where this is all going. Stallone brings an admirable sullen frustration and wounded loneliness to his one-time champ, the man who avenged Apollo and brought down Ivan, shaming the Soviet contender who now pins all his hopes on his own son.
But director Steven Caple Jr, working from a script with writers including Stallone and Juel Taylor, just can’t breathe the same fresh energy into extremely familiar plot beats as did Creed helmer Ryan Coogler, an exec producer here.
As Adonis leans into the generic fall from grace and rise again template, it’s Viktor who, like the older Rocky, has the more intriguing plight.
Ivan is determined to return to glory in Moscow. Wined and dined by the same Russian high rollers who snubbed him, Viktor bristles at the hypocrisy.
Driven mercilessly towards success by his bitter dad, he’s never shown the slightest hint of love and is haunted by memories of the mum who walked out on both of them.
When a white power-suited Brigitte Nielsen strides in, all Amazonian snow queen as Ludmilla, the very woman who disappeared and now smells money, it cuts deep for Viktor.
His pain is palpable and quite touching, and – whether inadvertently or by design – turns things on its head for the audience. With the Dragos painted as worthy antagonists rather than villains, the line between who is more worthy of triumphing becomes blurred.
But the film fails to capitalise on this fascinating family drama. With not enough Sly, and Adonis stuck in a predictable rut, the motivations of the unloved and fiercely driven Viktor deserve more attention.
Nielsen is totally squandered in the same way, as Phylicia Rashad as Adonis’ mother, struggling with why her son would revisit their tragic past, and the brilliant Thompson.
If the film had been called Drago, it could have taken a more original, nuanced look at busting open the bad guy mythology and rising above a generically entertaining structure.
Instead it’s just more of the same same to diminishing returns.