The world was first introduced to the iconic Italian-American boxer from Philadelphia when “Rocky” hit theaters in 1976. Bringing in $225 million at the box office, it became the highest grossing film of that year and kicked off a highly successful sports-drama series which has since reached eight films.
The seventh film came in 2015 when director Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther,” “Fruitvale Station”) introduced a spin-off from the original series with the title “Creed.” The story centers on aspiring boxer Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed. The spin-off features Michael B. Jordan (“Black Panther,” “Friday Night Lights”) in the title role and Sylvester Stallone returning to his legendary role of Rocky Balboa. With “Creed,” Coogler provided a fresh take on the popular franchise as he brought it into the modern era.
“Creed II” caused concern early in production when it was announced that Ryan Coogler would not return to direct the film. Since Coogler had co-written the original with Aaron Covington, I admittedly was skeptical about how the sequel would turn out without his presence. In Coogler’s absence the film features a story written by Cheo Hodari Coker (“Luke Cage,” “Notorious”) and Sascha Penn, with the screenplay handled by Juel Taylor and Stallone returning to a writing role for the franchise. Stallone was supposedly intended to direct the film but ultimately the role was given to Steven Caple Jr. (“The Land”).
The film picks up three years after the fight against light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan and we see the success Adonis has obtained in these years. Dolph Lundgren returns to the role of Ivan Drago, the Russian boxer who killed Apollo Creed in the ring years prior. During Adonis’ rise to stardom Drago has been training his son Viktor, seeking the perfect opportunity to take on Adonis in the ring. Following Drago’s loss to Balboa in “Rocky IV” he was seen as a disgrace to his country. Intending to bring honor back to the family name, Drago hopes to seize the opportunity for a fight 33 years in the making: Creed vs. Drago.
While “Creed II” certainly serves its purpose as a sequel to “Creed”, it also doubles as a continuation of “Rocky IV.” There is significant development of characters introduced in “Creed” but it is particularly interesting to see the position Rocky has been put in. We find him struggling with his decision 33 years prior to not end the fight between Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago, which ultimately ended in Apollo’s death. The re-emergence of Drago brings the pain back into his life as he is forced to relive the moment, putting a strain on his relationship with Adonis.
A highlight of the film comes as Tessa Thompson reprises her role of Bianca, Adonis’ love interest. Jordan and Thompson have undeniable chemistry on screen, forcing viewers to become emotionally invested in their story. The duo perfectly portrays the difficulties of the relationship as Adonis’ pride and ego cross over from the world of boxing.
The “Rocky” franchise has often utilized real-life boxers as opponents. In “Creed,” boxers Andre Ward and Anthony Bellow stood opposite Jordan, portraying Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler and “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, respectively. The franchise continued the tradition by casting Romanian boxer Florian Munteanu in the role of Viktor Drago. Munteanu presents a true display of athleticism in the sport of boxing. Watching the large and intimidating frame of Viktor Drago train and take on opponents brings a pure sense of the danger at hand should Adonis enter the ring with the fighter.
Following the life and experiences of Adonis, allows for important themes to be explored, leaving viewers with much more than a simple fight film. A standout element is the exploration of family through a number of relationships displayed. In particular, Ivan and Viktor display the true strain on a father-son relationship as Ivan attempts to use his son to bring glory back to his name.
The spin-off series has been able to differentiate itself. A key factor has been the music which brings an urban influence. “Creed II” features a soundtrack curated by prominent hip-hop producer Mike Will Made-It, and Ludwig Goransson (“Black Panther”) returns as the composer. During training montages the urban influence is prevalent in the scoring while Goransson simultaneously implements elements of “Gonna Fly Now,” the original “Rocky” theme, creating a nostalgic feel.
“Creed II” develops the story and character of Adonis while opening a number of possibilities for where the franchise could take him next. It rarely stumbled with Steven Caple Jr. at the helm which simply leaves me wondering how spectacular it could have been if Coogler had returned for the sequel. While I hope to see at least one more film in the series, “Creed II” provides a satisfactory conclusion which could wrap up the boxing saga.