An old gangster once said, "sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers." Creed 2 abides by those wise words spoken by Paul Newman's John Rooney in Sam Mendes' Road To Perdition.
Taken on surface value, the sequel to Ryan Coogler's franchise-resurrecting 2015 hit film that netted co-star Sylvester Stallone an Oscar nomination is a rousing and satisfying holiday hit. Cheo Hodari Cooker (Luke Cage), Juel Taylor, Stallone, and Sascha Taylor cooked up a crowd-pleasing tale that follows the Rocky Balboa playbook to a tee, and adds a few surprises to spice up the dish a bit. Steven Caple Jr. stepped in for Coogler (who stays on as producer while he builds up Black Panther 2) and does a solid job in the directing chair, employing some wizardry and entertaining camera tricks. All in all, it's a good time.
Beneath the surface, an area I love to play in when watching a seemingly normal film, there's a lot going on here about fathers, sons, and the legacy that stretches between them.
Enter Ivan Drago (a never-better Dolph Lundgren), the Russian boxer who Balboa embarrassed 33 years ago on Drago's own turf. Banished by his family, the government, and left with an infant son by his wife, the action in Creed 2 picks up with Drago and his adult son, Viktor (the larger-than-life Florian Munteanu) living in a crummy apartment building in Kiev. Glory is gone, vengeance is at the top of the grocery list, and revenge is being set up with every vicious knockout the young Viktor delivers to an unfortunately mismatched opponent.
Enter Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, star power and ferocity fully engaged here), the rising star in the boxing world who now holds the heavyweight championship belt on his shoulder--along with a girlfriend who adores and respects him, Bianca (Tessa Thompson, who is good in everything). Victorious yet unsatisfied, Adonis is still hungry for something else. The shadow of his father, Apollo (Carl Weathers who hangs over these last two films like a broken memory), continues to linger over his success.
Enter Rocky (Stallone), who is proudly training Adonis yet weathering his own demons, which includes a renewed distance from his son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia). While Adonis has replaced the gap left in his life by the loss of Adrian and Paulie, there's still something broken in Rocky. He still feels responsible for Apollo dying, because his friend too his place and he didn't throw in the towel fast enough.
When the Dragos come to Philly and ignite a matchup with Adonis, old scars and wounds come to the forefront, testing all parties in its path.
This is a film about pride, regret, and choices-and where those three things take someone over the course of three decades. Rocky sits around and wonders if he had thrown in the towel, saved Apollo, and possibly changed both their lives. Drago can't live down a loss that broke his world. Adonis can't dispel the notion that his success will forever be connected to his father. Caple Jr. and the writers here take that firewood and toss it onto the flame, creating a highly entertaining and heartfelt ride.
Stallone is simply terrific again. While Jordan is a capable leading man and adds depth to Adonis, the aging action star is in his wheelhouse with Rocky being the supporting act. Every gesture, line of dialogue, and quiet moment or look is candid and convincing. You can look into Stallone's eyes and see the regret and tear in there. When he tells Adrian's grave that he is "a piece of yesterday trying to be something today," you feel for him. A scene late in the film will bring you to tears. 42 years later and Stallone can still fire up the waterworks as Balboa.
Don't sleep on Jordan, though. All the man is doing since The Wire and Fruitvale Station is carve out interesting, multi-faceted, and often tragic characters beset by their choices. He's got the star power to hold a film on his protein shake-packed shoulders, but there is a lot of talent there. He imbues Adonis with a grief that doesn't linger into petty melodrama, but thoughtful despair.
The biggest surprise here is Lundgren, who is getting some extra face time this fall/winter with this film and December's Aquaman. Small roles with lots of potential. The seasoned action star has headlined numerous Walmart $5 bin actioners, but in Creed 2, Drago fits the actor like a baseball glove that has been in the drawer for a few decades. Without much dialogue, Lundgren puts a mountain of loss on display.
It's not just a gimmicky villain role tacked onto the plot here for extra icing on the cake; Lundgren gets some space here to reestablish Drago's fractured world. He's just great and as a lifelong fan of the guy, it's good to see him swinging with his hips again. A scene between Drago and Balboa in a closed restaurant may be the best scene in the film, because it seethes with tension and quiet rage. Two guys climbing back into the ring, albeit verbally, with each other again.
Bringing back the Drago storyline, which brings Adonis and Rocky in a bittersweet way, was a signature move by the screenwriters and Caple Jr. However, it's what they do with it, and how they work it into the modern day struggle of all boxers dealing with concussion induced PTSD, that leaves a dent in the viewer.
Thompson gets a meaty slice of the pie here as Adonis' loyal yet honest voice in his head. The actress has delivered great turns in Thor: Ragnarok, HBO's Westworld, and this year's Annihilation-but Creed was the first film I saw and loved her in. She took a standard girlfriend role and made it something truly special. Without her work here, the men in the story don't have any backbone.
Phylicia Rashad adds some wise sting to her scenes as Mary Anne Creed, and Russell Hornsby delivers the cunning sleaze as a promoter looking to get rich by staging a mega-fight. The monstrous Munteanu doesn't get much to work with, but has a couple powerful exchanges with Lundgren that register. His work is done in the ring when he's bashing Jordan across the ring.
Creed 2 may have a predictable arc, but that's fine. You don't go into a Rocky-related movie looking for M. Night Shyamalan-styled twists and turns. Surprise: Adonis isn't seeing dead people. All I wanted here was a good time amid a wave of nostalgia that took me back to that eight-year-old version of me soaking up Rocky 3 and 4. That kid would have loved this film, even if he needed a few things explained.
Creed 2 isn't a complete knockout, but it does prove that there is some juice left in this franchise's legs. It can't stick and move like it used to, but the film series can still manage to plant its feed, dig a path to your heart, and move you emotionally.
I'm always up for that. Bring on another sequel, please. I'll have another.