Sam Hamilton reviews the newest sequel of the Rocky franchise.
It is heartwarming that the Rocky franchise has grown with its star, Sylvester Stallone. In Creed II, particularly, this idea comes to light, as the central themes become less about the youthful glory of looking towards the future and lean towards examining what was and what might have been. Creed II is about new beginnings – the fight to create them and the glory in achieving them. More so, the film focuses in on that which, in time, will be replaced. Where director Ryan Coogler’s first instalment of the series brought about the introduction of Adonis Creed, Steven Caple Jr.’s more subtly poignant sequel provides a triumphant realisation of the next big-budget boxing star and a satisfying swan song for Rocky Balboa.
The revelation of Balboa’s exit is no spoiler. Stallone has been vocal about his upcoming departure from the franchise, and this final performance – coupled with a script that, once again, he wrote – conjures the same mix of nostalgia and ruefulness that Balboa himself might feel watching the world move on. A shot of Rocky sat motionless, all alone in an emptying arena, brought about a resonant silence in the theatre around me and typifies the successes of this film. However, Stallone has made no attempt to write an art film, nor should he have. Rather, in a fashion not dissimilar to that of Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer II, he provides ample subtext through which small moments – the rain, dust, and grime, the sense that some things do die – shine through in an otherwise canonical plot. These moments serve as a testament to Caple’s direction, and in turn, Creed II packs a greater punch than its predecessors. It’s enough to make you think, not just feel.
This is highlighted in the strong character work, and not just in Rocky’s case. Both Creed, played with restraint by the returning Michael B. Jordan, and his enemy Viktor Drago are developed, explored, challenged, and motivated by the dramatically abundant difficulties in their everyday lives. Having said that, whether Viktor, as the son of the legendary, if disgraced, boxer Ivan Drago, would really have been raised on the factory grounds and lumberyards of Ukraine is uncertain. Despite this, the film’s first act is geared towards propagating a sense of dread in the audience, and Caple accomplishes this and then some. Even if Romanian actor Florian Munteanu, who plays Viktor, is no Tyson Fury, the clever manipulation of camera angles, beating musical refrains, skillful choreography, and gradual exposition of this bloodthirsty character create in him a forceful nemesis that would give classic Bond villain Oddjob a cold sweat. Viktor is presented as the Wladimir to Ivan’s Vitali – the younger and (statistically) superior family member.
Meanwhile, Creed’s life becomes complicated by the arrival of an infant daughter suffering genetic disorders, and he is forced through the inescapable challenge of facing the family who killed his father. At the heart of this, Tessa Thompson’s Bianca provides a sound and fundamental turn in the film as a moral anchor in the chaos around the central couple. Thompson also provides the vocals for two songs in the film, both standout performances. What this results in is a boxing picture with a deeply rooted focus on family dynamics. This theme emerges not in a superficial, Fast & Furious fashion but through obligatory familial responsibility, the painstaking failure of that, and the residual bitterness that may one day lead to a hope of recuperation. These are sentiments visited on all sides of the ensemble: in Adonis’ remembrance of Apollo, his deceased father; in Rocky’s attempts to redeem himself with his son; and in the conjoined struggle of the Drago family to finally have their talent realised by the country that forgot them. Moreover, the mistakes of the fathers fall upon the sons in this picture, and the real heroism seems to appear in ultimate closure and forgiveness. To say as much of a boxing picture is a testament to Creed II‘s underlying wisdom and lyrical sensibility.
Ultimately, though, it is a boxing picture. While the characters are sufficiently established, creating the emotional prerequisite for much cringing when the punches hit and the blood flows, Creed II demonstrates that the Rocky franchise has yet to reach the technical summit of boxing films. Chiefly, Caple borrows imagery from Scorsese’s Raging Bull, as seen in frequent against-the-ropes POV shots and soaring crane movements around the ring. While there are no attempts at gimmicky single-take tracking shots or flamboyance, there are some things left to be desired by the boxing sequences in general.
The visceral spectacle of a fight has to come together in the climactic match; such is a given for any action movie. In Creed II, however, the most visceral moments are in the early presentations of Drago’s might against puny challengers. When the big showdowns begin forty minutes into the film, it becomes clear that these are two actors acting, somewhat of a failure of immersion from a technical standpoint. It becomes common, too, for Caple to employ a rather unwelcomely snappy editing rhythm when the punches get going. This style, reminiscent of that of director Paul Greengrass, ensures that certain moments that should be monolithic fall short of an leaving an impact. No amount of bass, as provided by composer Ludwig Goransson, and no stylish assortment of hip-hop favourites can change this. However, your heart will get pumping in a standout third-act training montage with a soundtrack courtesy of rapper A$AP Rocky.
To watch Creed II is to witness the culmination of over forty years of polished boxers battling through obstacles with a prizefighter mentality, slurring through profound speeches, and fighting through their ordinary lives just as much as any man in shorts. Maybe Creed II isn’t better than the first Rocky, and the fight sequences are no match for those in Raging Bull. However, it closes the door elegantly on Stallone’s Rocky Balboa while notching up the required macho camaraderie of any boxing movie worth watching. Thus, Creed II affirms the Rocky franchise’s ability to entertain and justifies its long legacy.
Creed II is currently out in cinemas everywhere. Check out the trailer below: