Creed II – a sequel to 2015’s Creed as well as the Rocky saga that preceded it – is a film steeped in history. The story centres on the matchup between Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu). For those uninitiated with the Rocky franchise, this fight goes all the way back to Rocky IV (1985) when Adonis’s father Apollo was killed in the ring by Viktor’s father, Ivan. And while it’s indebted to what came before, Creed II is more than just fan service.
The story picks up not too long after Creed when Adonis is about to become heavyweight champion of the world. In the first film, Adonis was an unknown boxer who had nothing to lose. Viktor Drago finds himself in a similar position in Creed II. He and his father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren, reprising the role of the iconic Russian) have been made exiles in their own country and are now forced to live and train in the Ukraine. It’s far from a life of luxury, and the juxtaposition proves stark to the increasingly cushy life that Adonis inhabits. He also has much to lose now – professionally as well as personally – as he discovers that his soon-to-be wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is expecting their first child. These scenes of the men’s day-to-day lives, which director Steven Caple Jr. shrewdly cuts between, illustrates their opposing trajectories and suggests the danger that such a matchup could pose for Adonis.
Caple Jr. ably takes the reins from Ryan Coogler who resurrected the franchise with the exceptional Creed. And while it sometimes lacks the assuredness and surprising grace of that film, Creed II is true to the foundations that Coogler laid down and resonates emotionally as a result. It also contains the most visceral fight scenes of the Rocky/Creed franchise, making the stakes of the bouts all the more tangible.
Sylvester Stallone again stars as Rocky, Adonis’s trainer and confidante. He struggles to be there for Adonis during crucial segments of the film; this is partly due to some of the choices that Adonis makes, but it’s more to do with Rocky’s own personal issues. The importance of family is an overriding theme of the film and it becomes clear for Adonis that you need to be fighting for more than just yourself. This is the arc that he is forced to undergo, as Rocky did before him.
The film plays with the Rocky history in thoughtful, effective ways, repaying the faith of fans with the way it mirrors character and narrative beats of the past. It is also, however, conscious of taking these well-worn ideas in fresh directions. Part of the surprise of the film is the way it humanises the Drago’s and gives us a more nuanced perspective of the enemy. In this respect, Creed II continues in the tradition of its predecessor by setting a higher standard for films of its genre.