Following the success of 2015’s Creed, can its successor keep up the momentum or does the 8th film in the Rocky series show signs of fatigue?
The release of the first Rocky film back in 1976 set the template for not only boxing movies, but for sports films to imitate for decades to come. Now we’re 8 films deep into the series with Creed II, a direct follow-up to franchise soft-reboot Creed, how does the series keep the formula from going stale, if it’s even possible?
The Rocky film series has left an indelible mark on not only boxing and sports films, but on popular culture. Sylvester Stallone’s story of a rags to riches journey via boxing is, in hindsight, a pretty unusual one to have attained such immortality: the films are formulaic and predictable, and aside from the recent soft-reboot in the shape of Creed back in 2015, the series has even been outstripped visually by subsequent boxing films. It’s a real surprise therefore, to have the 8th instalment in the series help break box office records in the USA (it shared the best Thanksgiving take since 2013 with the help of Wreck-It Ralph 2), and continue to get bums on seats.
Just what is keeping people invested in these films?
As formulaic as the films may be, the Rocky series arguably set the standard that all sports films have been following since. Every film is packed with characters that audiences can’t help but root for, and as sparse as they may be in the series, its antagonists are instantly recognisable. None more so than Ivan Drago, the Soviet Superhuman who in the fourth movie was responsible for one of the franchise’s most shocking moments.
Naturally, when the son of Apollo Creed becomes the protagonist of the new series of Rocky films, there’s going to be a moment when the name Drago gets brought up. As the film says itself, you can’t have the name Creed without the name Drago right alongside – the two are destined to come together again sooner or later. And so it is here, when Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, emerges from the remnants of the old Iron Curtain of post-Soviet Ukraine to challenge new World Champion Adonis Creed to a bout. It’s a familial grudge match for both sides; the Creed party for obvious reasons, but the Drago father and son combo are also looking to get revenge on Rocky Balboa and Creed, for the humiliation that Ivan suffered back in Moscow, after his defeat to Rocky at the end of Rocky IV (spoiler alert, sorry).
It’s an interesting take on a character that had until now been a one-dimensional “Red Menace” for the American heroes to overcome. Ivan now has some nuance to him, and the film succeeds in making both him and his son Viktor almost sympathetic to a point. If Creed had any issues the first time around, it was a lack of an interesting opponent for Adonis to face (with the utmost respect to Tony Bellew, he wasn’t exactly memorable in his role in the previous film) – that’s an obstacle deftly avoided here.
The remainder of Creed II‘s cast is similarly well developed here; not only does Michael B Jordan continue to make Adonis Creed a compelling character to follow, but Tessa Thompson is the absolute stand-out as his resilient partner Bianca. Both are so excellent throughout, that with those two against a newly invigorated Dolph Lundgren as a newly interesting Ivan Drago, the person that loses out the most here is Stallone as Rocky. It’s no bad turn at all, but when there was so much momentum for Stallone to be considered for awards at the highest level for Creed he really doesn’t follow that up here and is given very little to do. Thankfully that doesn’t detract wholly from the rest of the film, and the combined efforts give Creed II a devastating emotional impact.
Creed II‘s players’ performances are especially notable given just how thin the film feels otherwise. The revenge angle is pretty much the sole focus of the film, and while it’s definitely not a bad direction, it’s hard to keep totally engaged with that for the full 2 hour running time. There are hints of different story elements showing at the seams, and I’ve no doubt that they’ll come into the mix should Creed III go ahead, but in this instance you’ve got a very by-the-numbers Rocky film here.
As such, the film is entirely predictable to a scene, and while there are a couple of genuinely well-realised turns in the narrative, someone well versed enough in these kinds of movie could probably work out what’s going to happen when before even stepping foot in the auditorium.
The most noticeable thing missing here from the first Creed is Ryan Coogler’s absence from the director’s chair. Steve Caple Jr. does no bad job here, and there’s a definite heft and physicality present in the fights that certainly the original Rocky movies fell down on, but he simply lacks the visual flair that made Coogler’s effort so striking. While the significance of the fights are well established by Caple Jr.’s direction, the film lacks a truly spectacular centrepiece moment like the one-take fight in Creed.
With all of this in mind, the final message that the film seems to have for its main protagonist and opponent is the importance of forging a legacy outside of the one set by their parent. Like the rest of Creed II, it’s not particularly original or groundbreaking, but it’s a promising look to the future of the series and a necessary step away from the overhanging shadow of the now classic originals.