How do you follow up a perfect film?
Way back in 2015, Ryan Coogler’s ‘Creed’ came out of nowhere to be one of that year’s very best films. Much like any protagonist in every boxing film ever, it had the odds stacked against it – it was the seventh entry in a franchise that had long since become a punchline, with an indie director working for the first time in the studio system, starring a leading man who had never headlined a film of its size before, and a shift in perspective that many thought of as trite and nothing more than a cynical cash grab. But, somehow, it worked. Coogler brought nuance, social realism and a thrilling grasp of filmmaking craft to what should have been a ludicrous continuation of the ‘Rocky’ saga, and got career-best performances out of both the heart-stoppingly attractive Michael B. Jordan and the original star/creator of this whole shebang, Sylvester Stallone.
Which brings us back to the question – how do you follow up a perfect film? Well, for director Steven Caple Jr and ‘Creed II’, the answer seems to be by trying to recapture the glory of the predecessor, but without an understanding of what made that film work in the first place.
By now it’s pretty basic to say it, but if anything, the film works best as a follow up to the original ‘Rocky’ series, with most of its plot picking up threads from 1985’s ‘Rocky IV’. Here, we see the return of that film’s villain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who has raised his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), with the express purpose of reclaiming their status amongst Russian boxing royalty (seriously) after his defeat at the hands of the Italian Stallion thirty years prior. That match was a way of avenging a past loss – as well as metaphorically winning the Cold War, as you do – after Drago was responsible for the death of Rocky’s rival-cum-friend Apollo Creed, absent father of our hero, Adonis "Creed" Johnson (Jordan - once again, so attractive). So, when the Drago’s travel from Russia to Philadelphia to issue a public challenge against Adonis, the now world heavyweight champion, it’s another chance for vengeance that the younger Creed just can’t turn down.
Except, maybe it should have been? The film’s main, glaring flaw is that Adonis’ motivation for actually taking the fight never quite adds up or gets elucidated to a satisfactory extent. He has so much to lose – Tessa Thompson returns as his partner, Bianca, and once again does magnificent work (even if the role feels thinner and not as well-written this time around) – but the movie is so caught up in the movie-mechanics of it all that it feels like his decisions are being made for him by the plot, rather than the other way around. Its annoyingly inelegant screenwriting, which is fine for the ‘Rocky’ films (which have always been the most masculine of soap operas), but feels incongruous after the deft weaving of melodrama and intimate humanity that Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington brought to the previous ‘Creed’.
It is mildly underwhelming to see a follow-up to Coogler’s knockout that is instead only merely good.
However, Caple Jr is, thankfully, at least able to bring some handsome filmmaking to the mix. He crafts images that have a bronzed, burnished quality to them, and displays a flair for visual iconography that would have been sorely missed had it not been carried over into the sequel. The fight scenes, though not as thrillingly executed as cinematographer Maryse Alberti’s stunners from the original, are still muscular, visceral affairs, carried off with impressive sound design and reliably fantastic physical performances from Jordan in each one. But one can’t help but long for the far more intelligent filmmaking of Coogler, and how he was able to marry those visuals to a fascinating thematic interrogation of the very series the film was a continuation of.
‘Creed II’ may not be an outright disappointment, but it is mildly underwhelming to see a follow-up to Coogler’s knockout that is instead only merely good. Caple Jr and co. are able to craft an entertaining ride that carries you through entirely predictable beats – and I mean entirely, as every single moment of this film feels predetermined from minute one – but that’s just not enough to reach the heights we now know this series can ascend to. I came out of the theatre on a high, swept along on a tide of emotion that, upon further reflection, I don’t think the film fully earned. At least, not without the perfect film it, unfortunately, followed.