If each song could only be used once in the history of movies, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would have to relinquish Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son” to Creed II. The eighth installment of the Rocky series, which picks up after the events of 2015’s Creed, is a film about the bond between father and son at least four (if not more) times over.
The film, directed by Steven Caple Jr. (The Land), written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, and executive-produced by Creed writer-director Ryan Coogler, is a boiling pot of masculine anxiety. That’s a given for a series built around boxing, but the best Rocky movies also possess a surprising amount of tenderness. It’s nice to see Rocky Balboa triumph in the ring, but the moments he shares with his sweetheart Adrian are the most affecting ones. He’s a teddy bear with fists.
Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) isn’t Rocky. While he’s also possessed by the desire to prove himself, his drive is fueled more by anger over the tragic legacy of his father, Apollo (Carl Weathers), the former heavyweight champion who was beaten to death in the ring by Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in 1985’s Rocky IV. Death hangs over Creed II, while taking physical shape: Drago’s son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who arrives to challenge Adonis and restore honor to his own family name three decades after Ivan’s defeat to Rocky.
It’s a state of emotional stymieing that Jordan pulls off well, particularly in light of a heavy-handed script. As Adonis is pushed into situations that are either nonsensical or require him to be an asshole for no discernible reason, Jordan makes the best of it, imbuing the character with enough charm that viewers will root for him anyway. If there’s one thing that Creed II isn’t lacking, it’s hero montages, and Jordan is a pro at pulling them off.
Tessa Thompson reprises her role as Bianca Porter, Adonis’ girlfriend.
Though Creed II isn’t as black and white in its sympathies as Rocky IV, one of the two boxers is very clearly the hero of the story (to quote Lady Bird, he is the titular role), and there’s never really any question as to how things will turn out. There’s a clear map for Adonis to follow — not only to make peace with being a Creed, but to figure out his own place in the world as his relationship with Bianca Porter (Tessa Thompson) gets serious — and the path is so well-worn that, despite Jordan’s and Thompson’s best efforts, the film sags when it’s out of the ring.
An attempt to dimensionalize the Drago family exacerbates the problem, as the film’s sympathies are clearly split. Creed II’s very first scene is of Ivan and Viktor rather than Adonis and Rocky or Bianca, and the adversaries remain such a huge part of the story that one wonders if they’re being set up for a spinoff. The conflict driving Viktor — the idea that his mother Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen) left because of his father’s loss, and the family’s subsequent status as social pariahs (they seem to be living hand to mouth) — isn’t too far off from what Adonis is dealing with. Stallone and Taylor latch on to the idea as they try to craft a compelling narrative.
The waters are further muddied by Rocky’s estrangement from his own son as he remains a surrogate father figure for Adonis in a storyline that feels a little undercooked (this is a story about family), and by Bianca’s pregnancy, which enters some potentially insensitive territory in how she and Adonis deal with the possibility of the baby inheriting Bianca’s hearing loss. The film also noticeably lacks Coogler’s touch when it comes to taking into account how race and class factor into public image in any field, as if Adonis’ newfound fame would render it all irrelevant.
Dolph Lundgren (left) and Florian Munteanu as Ivan and Viktor Drago.
The change in hands is also reflected in how the fights come across. Punches still land with cringe-inducing impact, and both Jordan and Munteanu are experts at balancing the fight choreography with the emotions they’re meant to be experiencing as rounds drag on, but otherwise, the fights fall curiously flat. There’s no coherent sense of movement, which may have something to do with just how scattered the film feels as a whole.
On the bright side, Munteanu more than pulls his weight, channeling some of Jordan’s ability to communicate vulnerability in his gaze while remaining outwardly physically imposing. Lundgren’s ability to give Ivan depth is especially impressive given how cartoonish the character was in Rocky IV (and the fact that Ivan is, you know, a murderer). Then there’s Bill Conti’s Rocky theme, which becomes easy shorthand for the movie to rally sympathy behind Creed (who is sympathetic, to be clear, but robbed of much of what made him so compelling in the first film) as the Dragos start to become the dominant force in the narrative.
The leaps the story takes in order to offer up a neat, copacetic conclusion are fairly obvious, but also somewhat ironically fitting given that the initial match between Adonis and Viktor is engineered for the sake of a narrative. It’s funny, too, that this sequel should feel like it’s struggling to fill its predecessor’s shoes, given the way its characters struggle with much the same thing. Unlike Adonis and Viktor, however, Creed II never manages to step out of that shadow.