Creed II digs beneath the icons to examine damaged masculinity

The new Creed sequel might not be as powerful as its predecessor but it presents a compelling look at damaged masculinity, writes Blake Howard. 

Creed II, the ‘kitchen sink’ sequel to writer/director Ryan Coogler’s phenomenal franchise resuscitation Creed, pits heirs to the Rocky universe’s royalty against one another for the throne. Playing like the greatest hits of every Rocky sequel to date, Creed II is bigger and its hits thud harder, but it misses the emotional focus and finesse of its predecessor.

Three years after his close loss to Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has worked up to his shot for the heavyweight title. In the wake of his victory Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) calls Adonis out to settle family scores. Despite his trainer Rocky’s (Sylvester Stallone) hesitation, he takes the fight.

Adonis’ journey continues beyond heavyweight crown and into life as a new husband and father. Before some meaty existential emptiness seeps in for the young fighter who has hit lofty heights so young, promoter Buddy Marcelles manipulates him. He is a proto-Don King slimeball played by Russell Hornsby with all the sleaze and none of the charm – looking to cash-in on this spectacle. Jordan is no less committed, faced with the cynicism that he’s forced to portray; he’s stuck on the tracks of the somewhat dunderheaded reflexive vengeance to the right the course of his family’s history.

Tessa Thompson is music to this movie in more ways than one; producing two tunes for the soundtrack and playing Adonis’ rock. Thompson dwarfs Jordan’s petulant Adonis in the portrayal of a newly minted parent. Stallone’s Rocky is a comforting warm blanket. He’s got less emotional ‘work’ to do this time around, but when he’s there to elevate Jordan the movie truly sings.

The pivot for Creed II is that the haunted fighting legacy lands squarely on the epic shoulders and angular traps of Viktor Drago, delivered with monosyllabic intensity from newcomer Florian Munteanu. He’s the less oiled behemoth son of the exiled man-machine turned Soviet athletic relic Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Lundgren’s Ivan has the greys, and the dramatic goods as the domineering sporting father, slighted by Russia’s ruthless win-or-exile attitude.

Steven Caple Jr. shifts his directorial style from the machine-like movements of the first film and slugs and pounds with grandiosity. If Coogler’s fight choreography emulated elusive poetry, Caple Jr gives the sensation of concussion and the sharp exhale of ribs caving into your chest cavity.

Stallone and Juel Taylor pen the script from a story by Cheo Hodari Coker and Sascha Penn. The strength of the writing is digging beneath the icons to examine damaged masculinity. The weakness is the messy execution of Adonis’ emotional arc. Composer Ludwig Goransson has the blessing to once again to manipulate and incorporate Bill Conti’s unforgettable notes into this stylistic mesh. Conti is to Rocky what John Williams is to Star Wars. If you don’t get fired up by the Creed II training montages, you’re probably dead.

In Creed, Adonis delivered an emotional atomic bomb confession that lands harder than any punch thrown in the series. He pleads with trainer Rocky (Stallone) not to throw in the towel. He says “I gotta prove it…that I’m not a mistake.” The power of that single line is the ethos for the new branch of the series, demonstrating that this franchise has deep tendrils in our hearts and an iron chin.