Review: Steven Caple Jr's 'Creed II' Packs an Emotional One-Two Punch
by Adam Frazier
November 21, 2018
When Creed was released in 2015, co-writer and director Ryan Coogler (of Fruitvale Station and Black Panther) pulled off a seemingly impossible task: staying true to the spirit of the film’s iconic predecessors while forging its own path — not unlike the odyssey of its protagonist, Adonis "Donnie" Creed (Michael B. Jordan), searching for an identity and fighting for an opportunity to prove his own self-worth. The film reinvigorated and expanded the Rocky series by returning to its underdog roots and became a fable for a new generation; the rebirth of the American Dream. Now, director Steven Caple Jr. steps in to tell the next chapter in Creed II, an inspiring and affecting sequel that isn't another bum from the neighborhood.
Since arriving in Philadelphia three years ago to train directly with retired former heavyweight champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Donnie has found love and success so far. Under his mentor, coach, and "uncle" Rocky's tutelage, Donnie has risen quickly as a heavyweight title contender. He and his partner, Bianca (Tessa Thompson from Sorry to Bother You, Thor: Ragnarok, Annihilation), a successful singer-songwriter with a progressive hearing loss, are ready to start their own family. As the illegitimate son of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed — who died in the ring before he was born — Donnie is afraid of not living up to expectations, especially his own, and wonders if he’s worthy of being a champion.
It’s not long before an opponent emerges who forces him to confront his doubts: a monstrous, undefeated heavyweight contender, Viktor Drago (Romanian boxer Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu) — son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) — the Russian fighter from 1985's Rocky IV sequel who infamously killed Apollo during an exhibition fight. Drago then publicly challenges Adonis for a next-generation "Creed vs. Drago" showdown, but those closest to Donnie, including his own adoptive mother, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), worry that history may repeat itself. Donnie wasn't the only son that lost something as a result of that 1985 fight, and Viktor is hungry — not only to prove himself but to redeem his disgraced father, who lost everything after his defeat at the hands of the avenging Balboa.
Co-written by Stallone and Juel Taylor, Creed II is an organic follow-up that stays true to the heart of the story and its characters. The idea of Donnie avenging his father’s death by fighting the son of Ivan Drago feels like a natural, inevitable progression for the character – part of his journey in discovering who he is and why he fights. Stallone doesn't get enough credit as a writer on these films; while his Rocky scripts are mostly formulaic, he knows how to work that narrative heavy bag like no other. Creed II is downright Shakespearean, telling a layered story that bridges generations and avoids becoming a nostalgia-heavy revenge flick by focusing on what's at stake for Donnie and Viktor: two sons with dreams of their own, caught up in their fathers' legacies, and linked by the same tragedy.
As solid as the writing is, Creed II wouldn't work without the strong performances of Jordan, Thompson, Stallone, and Rashad. The late, great film critic Roger Ebert once said that "movies are like a machine that generates empathy." They let us understand different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears and help us to identify with the people who are sharing the journey with us. By that measure, it's impossible to consider Caple's film anything but a success. We care about Donnie and his relationships with his mentor and "Unc" Rocky, his soulmate Bianca, and his family. Jordan exudes charisma and strength but vulnerability as well, and by the time we reach the film's climactic bout, we are completely invested in his character's journey.
We imagine ourselves in his shoes – in Rocky's, in Bianca's, and even in Drago's – and we're cheering, not for a knockout, but for emotional catharsis. As we sit in the dark, shadowboxing alongside every jab and hook Creed throws, we see our own struggles more clearly. For 130 minutes, no longer are they impossible to overcome; no dream is too big, no pain too great. And with Rocky in our corner, we're ready to go the distance and prove something – to ourselves and the world. The 72-year-old Stallone continues to imbue his beloved character with depth, delivering a warm and thoughtful performance while, as a writer, crafting a story that is vital and relevant. Likewise, I have to mention Lundgren who takes his iconic, if not one-dimensional, villain and paints him as a very flawed human being we come to care about. I'm amazed by the attention to detail – the seriousness and care Stallone, Taylor, and Caple have put into this movie. They've created a film that is not only a fantastic follow-up to Creed but a direct sequel to Rocky IV that also feels like the culmination of the entire series.
While Coogler and his cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, are missing from the action, their influence is not. Caple and his director of photography Kramer Morgenthau ("Boardwalk Empire", "Game of Thrones", Thor: The Dark World, Terminator Genisys) deliver a rousing, exhilarating underdog story that is still as inspiring as it is entertaining, with hard-hitting fights and harder-hitting drama. It's easy to dismiss these films as "movies for guys who like movies" or simple-minded sports flicks, but the truth is that the Rocky series isn't just the story of one man - it's American mythology. It's a story of perseverance. Whether it's Balboa or Creed or us as the viewer, it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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