Ryan Coogler’s Creed, the 2015 film that unexpectedly made the Rocky franchise great again, worked so well because it knew exactly when to celebrate and when to subvert the Rocky formula.
Casting the great star-in-the-making Michael B. Jordan as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the son of Rocky’s Apollo Creed — whom the heavyweight champ Rocky Balboa got his million-to-one shot against in the 1976 original, before the two became friends in later films — was a smart way to replicate Rocky’s rise-and-fall-of-a-boxer story arc. It also allowed Creed to shed the weird detritus that the Rocky franchise had accumulated over the previous four decades (like that robot).
And as if that wasn’t enough, Coogler made the world aware of how great Tessa Thompson (who plays the film’s love interest) is and gave Sylvester Stallone (Rocky himself) his best role since the 1990s — while simultaneously announcing himself as one of the most promising directors of his generation. He shot Creed’s fight sequences with a balletic grace, and imbued the film’s interpersonal scenes with just as much heart and heft (before delivering on his potential with the impressive follow-up project of 2018’s absolutely massive hit Black Panther).
What makes Creed II just a little disappointing, then, is the way it simply becomes another Rocky movie. Where the first film meditated on the legacies that black fathers leave for their sons, on the notions of aging and mortality, and on what it means to build a name for yourself that distinguishes you from your parents, the second film is mostly concerned with who wins boxing matches. It pillages Rocky history wholesale, becoming a kind of remix of two of the other movies in the franchise.
And yet ... the reason there are so many Rocky movies is that their base formula still works. Creed II might not be the near-perfect movie its predecessor was, but it’s still pretty good. Let’s examine the recipe that went into making this film.
Three parts Rocky II
If you know anything about the plot of Creed II — and the Rocky franchise in general — you’ll probably expect the film to follow in the footsteps of Rocky IV. And it does, pitting Donnie against the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed Apollo. (We’ll get into this plot point in more detail in just a moment.)
But what holds Creed II together isn’t the conflict with Drago. Instead, it’s Donnie’s attempt to figure out what his life might look like without boxing. He and Bianca (Thompson) get engaged. They discover she’s pregnant. They move to Los Angeles to be closer to his mom (the great Phylicia Rashad). And when Donnie encounters a setback that makes him hesitant to return to the ring, the movie enters a surprisingly powerful stretch that just lets Jordan work through his emotions, trying to process the traumatic things that have happened to him.
It’s a reminder that this franchise has always been at its best when it pairs smaller-scale stories of its characters just trying to live their lives with the spectacle of the big boxing matches. It’s also a welcome chance to give Thompson and Rashad more to do than Creed offered — accounting for Creed II’s one unambiguous improvement over the original film.
But astute Rocky scholars will recognize this story as largely a soft reboot of the plot of Rocky II (one of the less discussed Rocky sequels, perhaps because it doesn’t feature a memorable “villain”). Like Rocky II, Creed II replaces a great director (Coogler on Creed; John Avildsen on Rocky) with a serviceable one (Steven Caple Jr. here; Stallone himself on Rocky II), and it compensates for a retread of a story with ever grander mythmaking. (At one point, Donnie retreats to the desert for a massive training montage that asks, “You already know Michael B. Jordan is buff. But what if he were more buff?”)
Even in the particulars of their plots, Creed II and Rocky II have a lot in common: the main character having to step away from boxing for a long time before finally dragging himself back to the ring for the climactic rematch; the coupling up; the baby being born.
And just like Rocky II, Creed II is a pretty good follow-up to a great predecessor.
Two parts Rocky IV
But, okay, there’s a lot of Rocky IV in this movie!
By far the most ridiculous of the Rocky films, Rocky IV sends the mumblemouthed boxer into the Soviet Union to avenge the death of Apollo, who died in a match against Ivan Drago, the Russian monolith of a man played by Dolph Lundgren. Rocky was Apollo’s trainer and failed to call the fight when he saw his boxer was ailing, so it’s a mission of both redemption and revenge. By the end of the film, Rocky has more or less won the Cold War.
Rocky IV is kind of awesome, in that cheesy ’80s way, but its tone could not be more different from the more realistic tone of the Creed movies. So the choice to incorporate Drago, his son Viktor, and a vision of post-Soviet Russia that mostly seems drawn from watching ’80s movies feels like a dangerous gamble on the part of Creed II screenwriters Stallone and Juel Taylor.
What saves this story from feeling like a total misfire is the script’s willingness to scramble your emotional investment. The Dragos were completely tossed out of Russian society and have had to live a hardscrabble life on the fringes of that world; Viktor is a massive wall of a man because it’s the only thing he knows how to be. (In contrast, Donnie had some degree of economic security once he learned who his father was.)
Don’t get me wrong. Neither Caple nor Creed II’s screenwriters seem to realize just how sympathetic they’ve made the Dragos, especially in a climactic fight that hinges on the relationship between father and son in a way that doesn’t wholly work. And pivoting from the intimacy of Creed to a generation-spanning family epic straight out of a potboiler novel is just a weird call all around. (So is the way Ivan keeps saying variations on “break him,” because everybody remembers him saying “I must break you” in Rocky IV.) But it could have been worse.
One part Creed
One reason Creed II manages to avoid totally losing itself in Rocky lore is simple: It’s still rooted in a movie that took its characters and their emotional complexities seriously. The sequel struggles to find anything for Rocky to do that’s as compelling as what he experienced in Creed, but it can still coast on the power of Stallone’s cragged face, tumbling off his skull like rocks from a mountain.
Similarly, there’s really no good reason for Creed II to busy itself with a brief conflict between Donnie and Rocky that seems to exist just to make the movie longer, but Jordan and Stallone built up such goodwill with Creed that I accepted it until I realized it was simply marking time. The sequel clearly recognizes how potent the chemistry between Jordan and Thompson is, and goes all in on it.
There are worrying signs in Creed II that a potential Creed III might abandon any semblance of ties to our reality, and its inability to meaningfully connect a story where Donnie becomes a father to the preceding film where he struggled under the burden of never knowing his own is a touch surprising.
And that’s to say nothing of Caple, who films Creed II’s fight scenes with a blunt, visceral quality that appeals but makes most of the movie’s smaller scenes feel a little perfunctory, as if he were checking shots off a list. Particularly egregious in this regard is a scene where Donnie’s mother figures out that Bianca is pregnant before she does, after his mom simply says that Bianca looks pregnant, even though we never see a hint of why she might think so. (Caple even botches a great little bit of physical comedy from Thompson that closes the scene!)
But I really loved Creed, and just enough of that movie’s spark carried over to its sequel to keep me invested.
A teaspoon of Dynasty
In the end, what most prevents Creed II from being better is the way everything that happens in the Rocky universe primarily concerns the same handful of families — to the degree that when Donnie needs a new trainer in LA (after Rocky stays behind in Philly), he hires the son of Apollo’s old trainer. It’s ludicrous!
And it makes the movie feel a little like one of those primetime TV soap operas that indulge in wild fancies in the name of entertaining us. There are a couple of scenes involving the Drago family saga that made me howl, and their silliness felt half-intentional on the part of Creed II’s filmmakers, like they were daring the audience to take the scenes seriously because they knew how ridiculous it was.
This kind of hurts the movie’s attempt to establish the identity of the Creed franchise as something distinct from the Rocky franchise. But hey, even the stupidest Rocky movies are a lot of fun.
A pinch of Rocky Balboa
The little-seen, not-that-bad 2006 Rocky Balboa — in which Rocky hauls himself back into the ring because the TV all but dares him to, while examining his relationship with his son (Milo Ventimiglia) — was not a movie whose themes I expected to ever appear in the Creed franchise. But there it is, winking at you in a handful of scenes, prodding you to wonder if Ventimiglia might take a day off from This Is Us to film a quick cameo.
I won’t reveal whether he did, but this tiny leavening agent is what ultimately reveals that Creed II’s heart is always in the right place, even when its brain isn’t. It’s a movie about how families are complicated legacies of their own, long continuations of stories we don’t always understand or appreciate as we’re living them, and how sometimes, time runs out unexpectedly. It is, in its own, weird way, a great Thanksgiving movie.
Creed II is playing in theaters everywhere.