Sylvester Stallone’s return to the ring for 2015’s Creed was something of a knockout victory, his revival of Rocky Balboa bringing him a supporting actor Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. However, this rematch (for which he is also credited as co-writer of the screenplay) doesn’t pack as mighty a punch, weighing in as little more than a generic boxing movie.
There’s a greater emphasis on Michael B Jordan as Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s old nemesis-turned-pal Apollo, and his musician missus Bianca (Tessa Thompson), adjusting to the fame of being world heavyweight champion. When his title is challenged by the son of Ivan Drago (a returning Dolph Lundgren from Rocky IV), the man who killed his father, Adonis can’t convince his mentor to continue as trainer, and the bout takes place with Balboa watching on television back home in Philadelphia – in the restaurant named after his late wife Adrian, which never seems to have any customers.
It would be wrong here too reveal the outcome of a fight that takes place less than 60 minutes into a film running over two hours, but it’s the trigger for extended passages of navel-gazing, angst-ridden crises of confidence and some of the woolliest fortune cookie philosophy ever mumbled on screen. No one would ever mistake Balboa for one of the world’s great thinkers, but it’s nigh on impossible to pick the bones of wisdom out of a sentence like “if you want to change things in a big way, you need to make some changes.”
Herein lies one of the film’s most flawed conceits; Stallone’s script aims for the grandeur of Shakespearean tragedy but all too often descends into soapy melodrama, the admittedly gripping canvas action overwhelmed and hamstrung by meaningless Hallmark sentiments. When Rocky asks Adonis “are you here to prove something to other people or to prove something to yourself?” it’s difficult to sustain interest in the answer.
Nevertheless, Jordan is good value as the young champ, less conflicted about the legacy of the father he never knew but struggling to come to terms with the demands of fame in a sport which, in the 21st century, has all but sold its soul to showbiz. In one telling scene, Russell Hornsby – as the promoter brokering the money-spinning Creed-Drago showdown – suggests that only a handful of the 77 fighters who held the heavyweight belt became household names, but it’s a narrative thread that’s frustratingly under-developed.
Creed II is by no means a bad film, but like the first sequel to the original 1976 Rocky it settles for a box-ticking template that seems reluctant to bring any tangible forward momentum to the franchise. Were it a standalone sporting drama with no historical precedent or baggage, it would be a perfectly acceptable piece of work, but it can’t help but be found wanting when held up to the thrills and emotional clout of its predecessor.
A parallel plotline in which Rocky, having helped Adonis comes to terms with his own turbulent family history and fractious upbringing, seeks to reconcile with his own estranged offspring, attempts to say something meaningful about the gulf between fathers and sons, albeit in the introspective manner of Bruce Springsteen on an off-day. These are big themes that might feasibly work in an entirely different movie, rather than grafted on to a testosterone-fuelled celebration of regulated fisticuffs.
It’s hardly a spoiler to report that events in the second half of the film suggest we’ve not seen the last of either Adonis or Rocky as they continue to shoulder the burdens of the past. We can only hope that whatever the next instalment has to tell us, it is delivered with more clarity and less cliché.