Movie Review: ‘CREED II’ fights in a familiar ring but throws emotional gut punches

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

CREED II

Rated PG-13, 130 minutes.
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Cast: Michael B. JordanSylvester StalloneTessa ThompsonPhylicia RashadDolph LundgrenFlorian MunteanuRussell Hornsby and Wood Harris

At one point in CREED II, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) asks Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) for some advice before taking a big step in his life. Rocky tells him, in so many words, to turn off his brain and let his heart do the talking. Those words are indicative of the storytelling at the center of the film, elevating every moment with heart. It’s between the fights where CREED II shines, using the parent-child dynamic, and what is passed on to their children, to create something deeper than a boxing movie or Adonis’s revenge.

The movie opens in Ukraine, where Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) has been trained by his father, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), to become a heavy-hitting boxer. After Adonis wins the world title, the Dragos know that their time is now to strike, with Viktor wanting to be champ, and Ivan wanting revenge on Rocky for killing his career 30 years ago. Meanwhile, Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) are starting a life together, propelled by both his success in the ring and her music career taking off.

Their trajectory is set in motion by an opportunistic promoter (Russell Hornsby) looking to cash in but also stake his claim in boxing history. They goad Adonis by brining up Apollo Creed, who was killed by Ivan years ago. He takes the fight, but Rocky won’t be in his corner and potentially relive Apollo’s tragic end. It comes close to happening, and causes Adonis to tailspin, trying to find identity as a son before he becomes a father, and working his way back to fight Viktor.

Sylvester Stallone stars as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed and in ‘CREED II,’ a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures film.Credit: Barry Wetcher / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures© 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Legacy is the main drive of CREED II. On one hand, Adonis struggles with being a champion that isn’t up to the standard his father set before him. On the other, Viktor is guided by his father’s need for redemption and restoring the Drago name. Stallone and co-writer Juel Taylor make these straightforward concepts better in communicating them to the audience under the surface, whether through reactionary facial expressions or dialogue that feels genuine rather than continuously being overt about the subject matter.

Director Steven Caple Jr. (THE LAND, RAPTURE) was handpicked by Ryan Coogler to take over the helm, and it’s easy to see why. His visual style, while not as polished, definitely keeps the tone of CREED. There are the tracking shots with the boxers’ back to the camera to translate their defensive natures, a lot of hero shots as well as specific framing to accentuate isolation, and, of course, the montages that have become synonymous with the ROCKY franchise.

However, the fight sequences, while hard hitting, can come across as uneven. It’s not that they are not good (the action is great) but it feels forced at times. The first fight where he wins the title, felt rushed, like they needed to get it out of the way, and it killed some of the impact of his victory. The Drago fights are better, but there is a still a need to force the emotion with some choices in post-production. For one, the score is too constant; it becomes a crutch and undermines the brutality and anger coming off the fighters. Another factor is the color commentary going on at ringside. No offense to Max Kellerman, Roy Jones Jr. or Jim Lampley, but it kept subtracting from the moment instead of adding to it.

Regardless, these are small details when measured against the whole of CREED II. It’s a damn fine follow-up to its predecessor, never losing sight of its heart. There is a well-rounded story from beginning to end, and it is better acted than the previous film, anchored by subtle, nuanced performances from Jordan, Thompson, and Stallone. At the end of the day, we’re all somebody’s child, and we carry that with us on our backs, whether positively or negatively. The Creed/Drago arc is something familiar and familial. Loss, pain, hope and preservation… these intangibles keep us going. As long as these themes remain constant within the frame, it will keep the CREED franchise going too.

Grade: B+

CREED II opens nationwide on Wednesday, Nov. 21. Early showings start at 7 p.m.

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