FILM REVIEW – CREED II. With Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren. Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. Directed by Stephen Caple Jr. Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality. 130 minutes.
1979’s “Rocky II” doesn’t get mentioned much when people are talking about their favorite films in Sylvester Stallone’s apparently deathless franchise. It’s an odd picture, that first sequel, tilting back and forth between the gritty, broken-hearted uplift of director John G. Avildsen’s 1976 original and the glossy, steroidal triumphalism of Stallone’s subsequent entries, which quickly degenerated into comic-book gladiator montages. “Rocky II” is kind of an awkward segue between seventies and eighties movies, and now almost four decades later, CREED II finds itself straddling a similar fence, following up a thoughtful, much-loved surprise hit with some fine character beats before drifting into stale, over-familiar formulas and fawning fan service.
Stallone was uncharacteristically gracious enough to step aside and hand Ryan Coogler the car keys for 2015’s “Creed,” in which this dynamo writer-director appropriated the “Rocky” saga for his ongoing exploration of young black men reckoning with absent fathers. This theme has been the cornerstone of former social-worker Coogler’s collaborations with the ferociously charismatic young superstar-in-waiting Michael B. Jordan. From 2013’s Sundance sensation “Fruitvale Station” to this past February’s Marvel mega-hit “Black Panther,” these two keep grafting a sneaky, sociopolitical agenda onto increasingly massive, crowd-pleasing canvases with blockbuster returns.
So I guess only someone with the ego of Sly Stallone could look at a movie as textured and thoughtful as “Creed” and think: “What everybody really wants now is more dumb Drago shit.” Coogler was so careful in how deftly he side-stepped the patent absurdity of “Rocky IV,” only mentioning in passing that Apollo died in the ring, while never getting into the whole Russian propaganda angle or Rocky ending the Cold War by carrying tree-trunks on his shoulders across mountains in Siberia to a tacky Vince DiCola synth score because everyone involved was too cheap to pay Bill Conti.
Alas, Coogler’s gone off to Wakanda and Stallone is back in the writers’ room. So we say goodbye to those vividly realized streets of Philadelphia and get ready for some Russian intrigue with the disgraced Dolph Lundgren bringing his brick shithouse kid Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) to America so he can find redemption for his family by clobbering Apollo Creed’s kid. “My son will break your boy,” Lundgren tells Sly, in a well-played scene that probably should’ve stung a little more considering Drago and Balboa’s shared history.
This silly backstory is a huge drag on “Creed II,” which strikes me as the biggest blown opportunity for a sequel since J.J. Abrams spent an entire movie setting up a brand new “Star Trek” universe just so he could remake “Wrath of Khan” four years later. The movie has some admittedly terrific moments between Jordan and Tessa Thompson as his trash-talking, dreadlocked better half, conspicuously mirroring the goofball marriage proposal and difficult childbirth sequences from “Rocky II.” (She even spends a fight wearing one of Talia Shire’s old, unflattering coat-and-hat combos.) But it’s all so purposefully secondhand, deliberately designed to remind you of he previous films you loved without going anywhere exciting or new.
“Creed II” is pretty much the movie everyone was worried the first “Creed” was gonna be, but it’s well-acted enough that I couldn’t hate it. Jordan and Thompson are as appealing as screen presences get these days, and though missing the pathos of the last installment Stallone still brings a reliable dim-bulb charm to his punchy palooka. Phylicia Rashad steals enough scenes for you to wish she was given more of them and I found myself fascinated by Lundgren’s sad-eyed scowl, though I could have done without him repeating umpteen variations on “I must break you.”
It was slyly (sorry) subversive of Stallone back in 1985 to put Carl Weathers’ swaggering, showboating Apollo Creed in an Uncle Sam outfit and place him alongside James Brown, both “Living In America” as two black and proud icons sayin’ it loud against the Soviet menace. I wish Stallone still had that kind of nerve, and I really wish he’d confronted head-on just how much of his target audience right now would probably root for the Russians over a black millionaire heir from California. That’s the kind of movie that might break you.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.