CREED II Really Struggles to Land Its Punches (Review)

Nov 24 2018 -- 12:15 PM

Creed’s most indelible image was Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis surrounded by a throng of young black neighborhood boys riding bikes and four-wheelers. The moment stands out as Adonis’ true coronation: pumping his fists in a boxer’s stance, he draws energy from his city and its residents as he becomes something bigger than himself. Creed reimagined a folk hero and his hometown, both informed by both race and class, and insightfully explored the concept of the underdog. Creed 2, on the other hand, trades Ryan Coogler’s hard-hitting narrative for something far more emotionally vacant.Picking up a couple of years after the first film, Creed 2 proceeds most logically from 1985. The core trio of Adonis, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) return to chase new dreams, but they’re completely roadblocked by old nightmares. The social and symbolic beats that made the trio’s emotional core work so well in the first film are entirely stripped away. Instead, the story follows Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu)--the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who famously killed Adonis’ father in the ring and was later defeated by Rocky in Rocky IV--as the byproduct of Ivan’s fall from grace. Together, father and son rebuild the senior’s legacy in their cold corner of Russia. But where Creed often felt capable of using those kinds of complex dynamics to tell a fresh story, Creed 2 largely steps away from those opportunities. What we’re left with under Stephen Caple Jr.’s direction and Stallone’s creative input is something that audiences may not want to see: a straightforward boxing movie.

In between the fighting set-pieces is a constant story of mental, emotional, and physical exertion taxes the viewer. Creed 2 makes you endure what Adonis endures; an endless test of the limits of his body that can feel tiresome and familiar. His prolonged series of trials inside and outside the ring--despite spit, blood, walnut-sized swollen eyes and cracked ribs--lose meaning without any real dramatic weight. By the conclusion, these exhaustive physical scenes even lessen the weight of Adonis’ final confrontation with Drago; they’re so excruciating that the fight’s outcome feels inevitable and even inconsequential.The fact that we’re not always sure whether to be invested in Adonis’ motivations doesn’t help things either. At times he’s admonished by his confidants for how short-sighted and dangerous his thirst is, and as Adonis, Jordan doesn’t always make it clear where we should fall either. Is it right he wants to avenge Apollo? Does he have a greater truth that’s driving him? Does he inherently doubt himself? Despite the intrigue of these questions, Creed 2 is more concerned with getting to its inevitable rematch that the journey suffers for the destination.Creed 2’s women don’t fare much better. They are often framed to represent Adonis’ conscience and vulnerabilities, and while the addition of a new character heightens the tension of Creed's decisions inside and outisde of the ring, the women in his life don’t get the character development they deserve. Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) rather Bruce Wayne-like, is most often seen brooding in her large, empty mansion, waiting to approve or disapprove of her son’s life choices. Bianca’s unorthodox career as an aspiring recording artist, who is steadily losing her hearing, often feels tone deaf itself. She is treated as a series of character cues to move parts of the plot along as it serves Adonis’ story, but her own story doesn’t get the weight or severity it needs. As the story evolves, her character’s arc is repositioned and sidelined in the most obvious and disappointing way.The ineffective emotional stakes, watered-down drama, and threadbare relational conflicts make Creed 2 exceedingly impersonal. Wallowing in boxing’s gladiatorial nature, without the dramatic sensibilities of the first film, Creed 2 is no more than spectacle, a collection of blood and bones. When boxing promoter Buddy Marcellus (Russell Hornsby) tells Adonis that his heavyweight title means nothing without a story behind it, his meta-commentary is an astute if inadvertent criticism of the film itself. While Creed 2 teases commenting on the long-term damage of boxing, it never commits to much beyond revenge porn. That’s a shame because the movie, with Stallone’s misshapen mug, seems desperate to say something bigger. Creed 2 could have seriously interrogated the long-term emotional, mental, and physical effects of a boxing career; instead the film merely spars with Drago’s and Rocky’s egos.[brightcove video_id="5970084234001" brightcove_account_id="3653334524001" brightcove_player_id=“rJs2ZD8xâ€]As he stalks his way to the ring for a final bout with Drago, Adonis has to consider what’s driving him. The answer to all of this and more--Creed’s and Drago’s motivations, the actual spectacle of violence, and the creation of this sequel--sneaks its way into a song that Bianca sings as Adonis makes his way to his match-up. It’s an original composition that hinges on a hook we hear again and again as he walks to the ring: “it doesn’t make sense but it makes dollars.â€

Images: MGM, Warner Bros.