Creed II Never Gives Up in Its Fight to Live Up to Greatness
In 2015, Creed marked a pivotal moment in Hollywood. It marked director Ryan Coogler's transition to a big budget blockbuster director, introduced Michael B. Jordan as one of the most talented and desirable new leading men in movies, and rebooted a franchise in a way that we actually deserved in 2018. Thanks to Coogler's tasteful direction and brilliant writing, the continued story of the Rocky universe was one that reflected the world we truly see around us. It was one that championed excellence of all kinds—regardless of race or origin. This type of storytelling opened the floodgates for Coogler's next masterful big-budget film Black Panther, which was a groundbreaking achievement of its own—once again starring Jordan, who even in a role as a technical villain, proved himself an American champion.
Given that, Creed II had insurmountable expectations. This was a moment and movie that couldn't be recreated, no matter how hard director Steven Caple Jr. tried. Yet, Creed II finds itself not as much establishing its own unique identity but fighting to live up to its predecessor, much like its title character living in the shadow of his immortalized father and legendary trainer.
Creed II picks up a few years after the first film, as Adonis Creed successfully wins the world heavyweight boxing title. Somewhere in the Ukraine, Ivan Drago and his son Viktor watch Creed's win and know their moment has come. This is the time that they come out of exile to challenge Creed's title. No one wants Adonis to take the fight—why should he want to fight some unknown unproven guy to defend his title? But Adonis sees this as part of his legacy, that he must take the fight to at once avenge and live up to the legacy of his father. It's a plot that positions boxing as the most dominate cultural force in this world—one that spans generations and has literal lives on the line.
If you'll remember, back in 1985's Rocky IV, Ivan Drago kills Apollo Creed in the ring when Rocky doesn't throw in the towel in time. Driven by his own guilt, Rocky avenges his friend in the ring by defeating Drago with a KO in 15 rounds. It's a heavy handed allegory for American dominance over the villainous Soviet Union. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Where Creed dazzled with unexpected takes on familiar scenes, Creed II feels like more of the same.
This is a film that tries to continue to develop the excellent characters Coogler wrote in his film, with themes of fatherhood that extend to Rocky, Creed, and the Dragos. For what it's worth, this is a film that actually puts a motive behind Ivan Drago. He was a man pushed by a relentless nation to succeed. And after his failure, he pushed his son to avenge him. But just as this movie positions boxing as the most important thing in the world, it also paints the Dragos as two men whose only definition of people was in a fight in the '80s. Certainly that must have been a pivotal moment for Ivan, but in Creed II they seem to be plotting their revenge like Bond villains rather than humans. And unfortunately, when it comes to relationships between fathers and children, the two main characters are even less developed than the Russains. Creed becoming a father, and Rocky attempting to reunite with his son, seem tacked on and sadly forgettable.
Despite its lack of flair and depth in terms of both storytelling and filmmaking, Creed II does absolutely succeed in being an entertaining boxing movie. I'm a sucker for a training montage, and Creed II provides a gritty desert take on the tried and true movie trope. Plus, it's an excuse to see Jordan shirtless for 117 minutes.
Creed II above all could learn something from its characters in the movie—maybe instead of trying to succeed in someone else's shadow, it's better to just be great in your own way.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.