‘Creed II’ continues to modernize, improve franchise

Image courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

8/10 Flawless and intense, Creed II is one of the better boxing movies I’ve seen.

Three years after the events of Creed, Donnie Johnson-Creed has won his way to a fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. After earning the title, he is promptly challenged by Vikto Drago (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu). Drago’s father, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), killed Johnson-Creed’s father in the ring in Rocky IV 30 years earlier, a fact the younger Drago constantly uses to taunt Johnson-Creed. With Johnson-Creed clearly outmatched by the 6’4 monster but unable to back down, trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, who also produces), who blames himself for Creed’s death, must watch helplessly as history repeats itself.

Creed II is another extremely strong sequel. Where Ralph Breaks the Internet got my attention with how clearly and strongly it focused on where the established characters were and where they wanted and needed to go, Creed II catches my eye for how well it stands on its own legs. This movie builds off Creed, which built off the Rocky movies, but it’s clearly its own story, and everything you need to know going in is firmly established on this film’s own terms.

Creed II is a boxing movie, but structurally, it almost feels like a beautifully done disaster movie, with the disaster being fallout from Rocky IV. All characters are affected with full, intriguing arcs that are both interlocked and well-distinguished. Balboa faces his guilt over not stopping the fight all those years ago. Johnson-Creed deals with a complicated set of emotions as he tries to avenge a father who he blames for leaving him – by refusing to allow Balboa to stop the fight, Johnson-Creed reasons, his father was prioritizing boxing over his infant son – while also trying to justify taking the exact same risk, as he and fiancé Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) have a child of his own over the course of the film.

Particularly tragic and graceful, though, are the Dragos’ arcs. After losing to Balboa at the end of Rocky IV, we learn that Ivan was disgraced. He blames his wife leaving him on the loss and possibly even carries some guilt over the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution, all of which he puts onto his son. This whole story arc is expressed in two short, almost silent scenes in Ukraine.

The film’s brutal emotions all come together in its two brutal fights between Viktor Drago and Johnson-Creed. Creed II lifts a lot of what works well in the previous installment, and that’s one such element – use of a real-life boxer in Munteanu and a highly trained Michael B. Jordan to shoot savage boxing scenes shot at length from in close, with the camera usually inside the ring. There’s nothing as technically demonstrative as the intense one-shot fight from the first film, but the lessons and tactics are applied fully to tell this new story-

There are still timeskips between and across rounds, unfortunately. Boxing movies build up their matches to the emotional spine of the narrative, and after all that buildup, it’s a letdown to not get to see the full match. I don’t know if that means sticking only to fights that end with knockouts or what another solution might be, but definitely don’t have ring girls fading across the screen.

The genre, and Rocky IV in particular, also has a traditional problem with timeskips outside the ring in the form of training montages, a problem Creed II pointedly avoids. There are only a pair of training sequences in the film, and they both feel less like filler and more like culminations of Johnson-Creed’s decisions to stand up to Drago. It’s a testament to how strong the character stuff is, and also an appreciated decision by the creative team to not waste viewers’ time.

Given how many signature shots and techniques Creed II takes from the first movie, I was surprised to learn it was directed by Steven Caple Jr. and not the first film’s director Ryan Coogler – Coogler was initially attached to the project, but had to drop out to finish Black Panther. I’m starting to think I like the idea of Coogler’s movies more than the movies themselves. Creed II would have become Coogler’s best movie, but it’s actually an imitation done by a talented nobody.

The ultimate goal of the genre is to turn boxing into something romantic and transcendental. Creed II turns fisticuffs into a story about second chances and justifying difficult choices, something both easy and difficult to watch at the same time. It is technically and conceptually impeccable.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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