Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV is the shortest, yet most arduous, film in the Rocky series. It features a comic relief-spewing robot and a seemingly endless montage of clips from other Rocky films that’s intercut with pensive shots of Stallone behind the wheel and set to Robert Tepper’s preening “No Easy Way Out.” But in between its sillier passages, Rocky IV is also explicitly political—exploiting tense U.S.-Soviet relations through its matchup between Stallone’s Rocky and Dolph Lundgren’s Russian-engineered superman, Ivan Drago. The film includes an absurdly over-the-top display of ghoulish patriotic fervor, one which visibly makes both Rocky and Drago uncomfortable, and its climactic moment comes when Drago, finally unshackling himself from a crushing sense of responsibility to his nation, cries out, “I fight for me!”
Whether you read Rocky IV as pure patriotic propaganda or noncommittal satire on the absurdities of nationalism, it was very much a film of its time—one that endeavored to address the political climate of the Cold War era head-on. As such, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Steven Caple Jr.‘s Creed II, which revisits the rivalry between Rocky and Drago some 30 years later, might also address the very relevant realities of present-day Russian-American relations. Instead, Creed II‘s fealty is only to the contemporary standards of the sequel, built as it is according to a strict blueprint of narrative beats—those of Rocky IV—but rarely expanding on them.
Picking up not long after the events of Ryan Coogler’s Creed, the film sees the further rise to stardom of this franchise’s newly christened hero, the young heavyweight boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). After winning the title of world champion—the same title that was once held by his late father, Apollo, and his coach, Rocky—Adonis is confronted with a challenge from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteau), the son of Ivan, who still hasn’t gotten over the career-ending loss to Rocky he suffered in Moscow at the end of Rocky IV.
From here, a familiar narrative takes shape: Adonis fills the role his father once played, accepting a challenge from an untested foreign fighter and leaving Rocky to try and talk him out of it. When Adonis is beaten, badly, he doesn’t die (as his father did at the hands of Ivan), but instead takes the role Rocky had in the earlier film, training hard to avenge a devastating loss. All of this recycled plotting is packaged as intentioned legacy-building—as “history repeats itself”—but it’s really just an excuse for the same old sequelitis.
There’s one substantial deviation from this predetermined path: a section in the middle of Creed II in which Adonis, recuperating from broken ribs and a ruptured spleen, settles down with his girlfriend, R&B singer-songwriter Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Jordan and Thompson are excellent in a lovely and anxious scene in which Adonis proposes to Bianca; the actors make their characters’ progression into married life, and eventually their role as parents, believable and moving. And while this emphasis on familial bonds may not be new to the series—in Rocky IV, Apollo and Rocky behave like brothers, and Rocky’s relationship to Adrian was given its own space to develop—there’s something uniquely special about the portrayal of family in Creed II, namely the way Adonis, Bianca, and their baby girl, Amara, come to represent perhaps the first dynastic black family in a major studio franchise. (That’s a development that may well have come from Coogler, a credited producer here, given that his Black Panther is similarly invested in a sense of lineage.)
As primarily a boxing film, Creed privileged an attention to dynamically staged, shot, and edited fight sequences that distinguished it from other films in the genre. In contrast, there’s nothing nearly as impressive in Creed II as, say, the extraordinary single-take sequence of Adonis’s first fight in Creed. Caple overuses slow-motion shots of punches to the face, and he generally sticks to the same medium distance from his fighters, with limited radial movement, leaving even Creed II‘s centerpiece matches between Adonis and Viktor (who feels, like his father, as if he can hail from any number of countries) to feel draggy and repetitive—especially in the context of a film that still manages to balloon its runtime to over two hours. With all that added real estate, Creed II shouldn’t feel so pared down, absent of both the topically political atmosphere of Rocky IV and the bravura action of Creed.