Published Nov 19, 2018There are ghosts haunting Creed II and they define the movie to such an extent that the sequel to Ryan Coogler's highly successful reboot of the Rocky franchise fails to define itself without the spirits it draws from.
Of course, ghosts haunted 2015's Creed as well — specifically, Apollo Creed, father of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who fought to establish his own name while dealing with the memory of a father he never knew by establishing a relationship with one-time Apollo opponent, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance). A strong performance and incredible directing from Coogler elevated what was essentially a Rocky reboot into a hugely successful film, reinvigorating the franchise.
But just as Creed couldn't escape its Rocky DNA (right down to the climactic result), Creed II struggles to get out from under the franchise's sequels. At the top of this list is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the boxing ring in 1985's Cold War-steeped Rocky IV, an unstoppable product of Russian engineering, finally defeated, in Russia, by a combination of Balboa and American
As Creed II opens, Adonis Creed has become the heavyweight champion of the world (oddly seen through a quick recap, a storytelling problem that persists throughout), but can't enjoy his time at the top because the spotlight is immediately taken by the high-profile arrival of Viktor Drago (Romanian boxer Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan, here to challenge Creed for the title. Quickly, a fight is arranged, Rocky declines to train Creed because it would dishonour Apollo's memory (and it's dangerous) and Adonis is quickly dispatched in the fight against Viktor, who is significantly bigger and stronger. Only Viktor's vicious brutality — egged on ringside by father Ivan — leading to his disqualification saves Creed from losing the title.
This isn't a significant spoiler — this happens early, setting up the rest of the action in the film. (Also, anyone familiar with any of the Rocky franchise is well familiar with the storytelling beats deployed here.) But it has revealed two problems with moving the story forward in the Rocky template. First, director Steven Caple Jr. (The Land) does not live up to the challenge presented any director of a boxing movie — to achieve something different from what some of the greatest directors in film history have done in a boxing ring, most notably Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. Weirdly, he mostly punts: Creed taking the title is seen on TV screens and via recaps, and the first Drago fight is quick and brutal. Secondly, Creed had an opponent problem that it overcame but Creed II has to pay that bill — namely, Adonis is fighting the ghost of his father in the first movie, while Rocky Balboa had charming, funny and handsome Apollo (Carl Weathers) as a foil.
And so, without an established opponent with whom Adonis has a relationship that can carry sequels forward, Creed II again has to turn to ghosts. Rocky III's Clubber Lang (Mr. T) is one of them; Viktor Drago is more akin to Lang's pure power and destruction, forcing Creed into a change of boxing style. The other is obviously Papa Drago, who unexpectedly turns into the emotional heart of Creed II. Drago, we discover, was completely destroyed by the Balboa fight 30 years ago, losing his wife, his home and all his fame and fortune — he's a disgrace and a laughing stock in his homeland. In anger and frustration, he's built his son into a destructive force, and the way Creed II deals sensitively with Drago's own memories (including a cameo by one-time '80s action heroine Brigitte Nielsen) make you wish for more of that side of this familiar tale.
Adonis Creed struggles after losing to Drago; he and now-wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) start building a family with the support of Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) and he stops boxing and training, unable to overcome the loss. Until he does, decides he needs to fight Drago again — training montage, final fight, end. Why does he want to quit boxing, and why does he return, despite having kinda achieved what he wanted in the first place? I don't know, and worse, Creed II doesn't know either.