For eight films, Rocky Balboa – as portrayed by Sylvester Stallone – has always been more about heart than brains. In Rocky IV, Paulie told him, “you’re all heart, Rock,” and it’s an idea that Rocky keeps coming back to in Creed II. Rocky praises Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) for his amount of heart in a fight, and tells him in a personal moment to use his heart and not his brain. Yet in Stallone’s screenplay for Creed II (cowritten with Juel Taylor), he takes all the heart and identity that Ryan Coogler brought back to this series with the 2015 reboot Creed.
With Creed – the only film in the Rocky franchise not written by Stallone – Coogler brought personality back to the franchise, focusing on Apollo Creed’s wannabe fighter son and sidelining Rocky. Creed was a revitalizing breath of fresh air for a franchise that seemed down for the count. With interest returning to this world for the first time in decades, Stallone’s return to writing leads to him gutting the goodwill that Coogler brought to the franchise and crafting a formulaic sports story that is both regressive and a rehash.
This is to be expected somewhat, since these films revolve around history, so there’s naturally an inevitability with Creed II. After rising in the ranks as a boxer, Adonis is challenged by Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), a Russian beast that is bigger and stronger than Adonis. Viktor’s father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) killed Adonis’ father Apollo in the ring, as seen in Rocky IV, so this time, the fight is personal. Adonis wants revenge for his father, while Viktor is fighting for his and his father’s legacy and honor in Russia.
As is the case with these films, first comes pride, then the fall, then the rebirth – after a training montage, of course. But again, this all felt new under the handling of Coogler, and here, it just feels like putting this franchise back on the rails. In the hands of director Steve Caple Jr., every step seems obvious and the conclusion of every fight is certain before it even begins. Caple Jr. doesn’t have a strong presence behind the camera, and even the fights can’t inject excitement into this story. Coogler was able to place the audience in the ring and feel every punch, but with Caple Jr., it’s almost as if the audience is observing from the stands.
Creed II continuously presents the idea that this is the story of Adonis and his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and that this is not entirely connected to Rocky. Bianca tells Adonis early on, “Rocky has his life, we gotta start ours,” and Adonis is told by Rocky that “it’s your time.” While the film seems intent on stating this separation, the presentation tells another story. Rocky and Adonis are essentially intertwined. Adonis can’t succeed without the guidance of Rocky, and once he starts to accept the old boxer’s wisdom, Adonis naturally flourishes.
Stallone also makes himself central to this world again, but without having anything new to say with this character. Stallone and Taylor try to follow Coogler’s playbook, but they just don’t have the tone or character identity correct. Creed II takes Stallone back to visit Adrian at her grave in a scene almost identical to one in the original, and the film constantly cuts back to Rocky’s uneventful, bleak life in Philadelphia, instead of paying more attention to Adonis. Even Adonis as a character is mishandled as proud and angry, with no real way of being quelled, besides fighting Viktor. Bianca hardly serves a purpose here, beyond giving some stakes to the fights and making Adonis slightly more human, instead of an intensely focused ball of rage.
At the very least, Stallone does humanize both Drago father and son. The Creed series so far has done quite an excellent job of fleshing out one-dimensional characters from the Rocky series in effective ways. There’s a sympathy for Ivan here, instead of just making him a symbol for the Soviet Union that must be taken down in Rocky IV. Despite barely saying a full sentence in the entire film, Viktor is still seen as a fighter trying to reclaim the life that his father lost decades ago, and it’s easy to understand his plight, even if he’s still the film’s necessary villain.
With Creed II, Stallone undoes the goodwill that Coogler brought to this new take on the franchise by once again making himself the center of the story, and losing the series’ exciting sense of personality. If Stallone wants this series to thrive and continue, maybe he should take himself out of the equation and allow for something different and provocative, rather than going down the same old paths once again.