Three years ago director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington breathed new life into the tired clichés of the old “Rocky” series with their film starring Michael B. Jordan as Adonis, or “Donnie,” Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s old nemesis-turned-friend Apollo who was mentored by Rocky for a career in the ring. This sequel comes from different hands—the script is by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, and it’s directed by newcomer Steven Caple, Jr., with Coogler retaining only an executive producer credit—and it feels more like “Rocky VII” than “Creed II,” recycling the old franchise tropes rather than reimagining them in the way its predecessor did.
In fairness, the movie responds to the expectations of contemporary audiences by moving through the narrative arc more quickly, though Caple’s direction lacks the urgency of Coogler’s and it spends an awful lot of time on family matters (or extended family matters, since Rocky is essentially part of the Creed clan, too). After rushing through what was the plot of “Rocky II” in a prologue—Donnie wins the title—the picture turns into a sort of mash-up of “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV,” emphasizing a generational continuation of the latter.
Now the champ, Donnie is challenged by none other than Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), the Russian who killed Apollo in the ring and then was dispatched by Rocky in the sort of bloodily climactic slugfest that was the hallmark of every episode in the series. Ivan has never gotten over his defeat, which made him a pariah back home, and has been training his beefy, brutish offspring for precisely this moment—though how he knew it would ever come is not clear.
Anyway, after some dithering Donnie concludes that he must accept the challenge, pressed on him by sleazy promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), but Rocky, filled with misgivings, declines to train him for it. That task falls to Tony Evers (Wood Harris), who can’t match the Italian Stallion’s savvy, and the fight doers not go well for Donnie; in fact, the battering leaves him not just a physical wreck but an emotional one as well. Drained of self-confidence, he might forfeit the championship==which he’s retained on a disqualification—rather than step into the ring again.
That doesn’t happen, of course, and with Rocky back in his corner, Donnie trains mercilessly—you know the montage—and faces off a second time against his oversized foe, this time in Moscow (a is usual in such fare, a caption informs us that’s in Russia). Thus we get another culminating slugfest, in which the old Rocky formula—take everything your opponent can dish out and keep fighting through all the pain—reasserts itself.
Filling the intervals between ring action, Stallone adds a bunch of domestic subplots, all presented in hokey, corny terms. Plenty of time is devoted to Rocky’s shambling, aw-shucks act, including periodic visits to his dead wife Adrian’s grave, where he talks to her; occasional sessions at his restaurant, which always seems empty (save for the time that Ivan confronts him there); and debates with himself over whether to try reconnecting with his estranged son Bobby (Milo Ventimiglia). He even gives himself a running gag about complaining to the city about a broken street light (har, har).
Donnie gets domestic, too. Toward the start there’s a protracted scene in which he fumblingly proposes to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), now an up-and-coming singer despite her hearing disability—a bit that might have come out of a second-rate sitcom—and that’s followed by her unanticipated pregnancy (another sitcom bit with the inevitable pregnancy test) and then the birth of their daughter (cue another hoary sequence when Donnie can’t get the kid to stop crying, until he takes her to the gym, accompanied by the chance that she might be hearing-impaired like her mother). And of course Phylicia Rashad returns as his concerned, wise stepmother.
Viktor gets a familial back story, too. Ivan pushes him mercilessly to “break” Donnie to restore their personal honor as well as that of their country, but the boy is furious over the fact that his mother Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen) abandoned them after her husband’s humiliation at Rocky’s hands, and now reappears on the arm of a powerful Russian official. And there’s a subtext we’re meant to read into his increasingly pointed glances at his father: does dad really love him, or is he just using him to regain what he’s lost?
All of this melodrama has the feel of hokum, and the fights—staged without the verve and panache that Coogler brought to the ring action in the first “Creed”—aren’t sufficiently exciting to redeem the sluggishness of much of the movie. The cast is okay—Jordan lacks some of the charisma he brought to Adonis the first time around, Stallone does the self-effacing old man bit, and Thompson is blander than she was the first time around, but they get the job done; and Lundgren and Munteanu snarl effectively and are certainly fearsome, while Rashad, Harris and Hornsby play their stock characters well enough and Nielsen is as icily dominating as ever.
The technical side is at least adequate as well, with Franco Giacomo Carbone’s production design and Kramer Morgenthau’s widescreen cinematography generally sharp. But the editing by Dana E. Glaubermanan, Saira Haider and Paul Harb goes slack from time to time—especially in the more intimate moments—and Ludwig Goransson’s score isn’t especially memorable, except for when Bill Conti’s original “Rocky” theme intrudes.
In the end, “Creed II” feels like a reversion to formula rather than the rethinking of it the original offered. It concludes with somebody literally throwing in the towel, which is something that the filmmakers should probably think about doing in terms of continuing the franchise.