(US - 2018)
Directed by Steven Caple Jr. Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Ivo Nandi, Jacob "Stitch" Duran. (PG-13, 130 mins)
2015's CREED surprised everyone. The idea of a ROCKY spinoff featuring Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, being trained by his father's rival-turned-best friend Rocky Balboa seemed like a desperate attempt by Sylvester Stallone to keep the ROCKY saga going. But it was a project conceived by others, most notably director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, who brought an electrifying energy to the story and a deep-rooted empathy and understanding of its characters, particularly Rocky, portrayed in a gut-wrenching performance by Stallone that earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination (he lost to Mark Rylance in BRIDGE OF SPIES). It also put FRUITVALE STATION director Coogler and its star Jordan on the map, leading to their reteaming for 2018's phenomenally successful BLACK PANTHER, where Jordan played the villainous N'Jadaka/Erik Killmonger. Coogler remains onboard as a producer on CREED II, but directing duties have been handed off to Steven Caple Jr., who helmed the acclaimed 2016 indie THE LAND. More importantly, the script is co-written by Stallone, given a more active behind-the-scenes role this time out. That proves to be both a blessing and a curse: yes, he's lived and breathed Rocky Balboa for over 40 years, but as evidenced by the increased absurdity of every franchise in which Stallone has been involved in a creative capacity, he doesn't know when enough is enough (the long-in-development fifth RAMBO film was rumored to have him battling a PREDATOR-type alien creature until cooler heads prevailed). There seems to be little need for a CREED II, which serves as not just a sequel to CREED but also 1985's ROCKY IV.
Paulie's robot, but with the addition of a singing and dancing Bianca as his hype man. The biggest missed opportunity of CREED II is the way it only scratches the surface of the Ivan Drago story. He's granted moments of genuine drama that almost generate sympathy for him and his son, but it takes the easy way out and turns them into stock Russian bad guys by the final act (perhaps Coogler would've explored the psychological complexity of Drago by having him show some remorse for killing Apollo, but Stallone definitely does not). There's a story to be told about Drago's humiliating downfall and the way he's obsessively molded his son into a single-minded vessel for revenge to restore honor to the family name. There's even some signs in his mannerisms--perhaps brought to the table by Lundgren, whose aged, craggy face speaks volumes that his minimal amount of dialogue cannot--that Drago regrets not letting his son be his own man. And there's some hints in Munteanu's performance that boxing isn't even what Viktor wants, but it's all he's been taught to do. It's always nice seeing Rocky back onscreen, and Stallone, Jordan, and all the returning CREED cast members (there's also Phylicia Rashad as Apollo's widow) are excellent across the board, but CREED II never gets by the fact that the Adonis Creed story didn't need to be continued, and what we've got is really just another generic ROCKY sequel that Coogler's CREED managed to successfully transcend. It's a testament to CREED II's adherence to a tried-and-true formula and cookie-cutter storytelling that the most interesting character arc belongs to Ivan Drago, and that Dolph Lundgren's performance had me wishing they'd made a hypothetical DRAGO spinoff instead.