In his 2015 film Creed, Ryan Coogler refurbished the Rocky franchise in much the same way that J.J. Abrams reinvigorated Star Wars later that year with The Force Awakens. He gave the moth-eaten boxing franchise a youthful energy and a new cultural expansiveness while loyally adhering to a familiar formula. It wasn’t profound stuff, mostly amounting to nonstop pastiche and callback, but it was effective franchise management, and the Rocky-verse felt fresh for the first time in decades.
It offered a new take on an old thing, but the inevitable sequel Creed II offers an old take on an old thing. Coogler has since elected to spend his prime making Marvel product, and so the franchise has been turned over to 30-year-old director Steven Caple Jr., who brings nothing particularly fresh or original to the table. Even Michael B. Jordan already seems bored with the role of boxer Adonis Creed, who lost a light heavyweight title fight at the end of Creed but wins the heavyweight belt in the opening scenes of Creed II.
My major problem with Coogler’s Creed is that the film created compelling new characters in Adonis and his musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), but kept turning the focus back to franchise figurehead Rocky Balboa, the character created and played by Sylvester Stallone. If there was any hope that Stallone would cede the spotlight to the next generation in this sequel, his eighth onscreen turn as the Philadelphia palooka turned heavyweight champ and Communist scourge, it gets dashed quick.
We are not two minutes into Creed II before Rocky begins the first of many long-winded life lesson speeches, and the film never stops obsessing over Balboa from there. I know the “Where’s Poochie?” comparison is a critical cliche by now, but almost any time that Rocky is not onscreen, someone in the scene asks about Rocky. Ironically, most of Creed II deals with Adonis’ concerns that he will never escape the shadow of his famous father, but he’s clearly worried about the wrong person’s shadow.
Even the plot of Creed II is recycled from 1985’s Rocky IV, as defeated Russian contender Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) emerges from decades in exile with a vengeance-minded son named Viktor (Florian Munteanu). Ivan killed Apollo Creed in the ring in Rocky IV but was defeated by Balboa, and now Viktor has come to reclaim his family’s honor by beating Adonis, who feels the pressure to exceed his father’s legacy and possibly exact some measure of revenge.
There is some raw potential in the setup, but the film is so intent on creating subplots for Rocky (including a nonsensical estrangement with his son and the grandchild he never met that makes Rocky seem like a neglectful jerk) that Viktor never gets developed as a character, while Adonis is once again pushed to the margins of his own film. Whatever you think about Rocky IV, it is inarguably a mid-1980s time capsule. Creed II isn’t a time capsule, but it should get buried.