“Name a sequel better than the original” used to be the kind of question film geeks would use to challenge each other. (Going for the low-hanging fruit of The Godfather Part II or Aliens would earn you only scorn.) But in the era of the perpetual franchise, it’s become commonplace for sequels—and threequels and more—to best the original. The Fasts and Furiouses didn’t find their true footing until the fourth installment; ditto the Missions: Impossible. Perhaps most improbably of all, 2015’s Creed picked up a series that had released one movie in the previous two decades and gave it a jolt of life, thanks mainly to writer-director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan.
Jordan returns for Creed II, which extends the mythology of the original Rocky movies by pitting Adonis Creed against the son of the man who killed his father in the boxing ring. But Coogler has moved on to Wakanda, leaving Steven Caple Jr. to take up directing duties and Sylvester Stallone, along with newcomer Juel Taylor, in charge of the script. The original Creed was a breakout hit, earning back nearly five times its modest budget, so you might expect Creed II to up the ante. Instead, the movie feels like a throwback to a time when the primary purpose of sequels was to squeeze out a little more juice, not build a framework sturdy enough to support any number of future projects.
Even the plot is recycled. Rocky (Stallone) and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) first did battle in Rocky IV, which squeezed the Cold War into a boxing ring so that the epitome of the American Dream could whup the embodiment of Soviet mercilessness. (One of my earliest movie memories is leaping to my feet in the theater during the climactic bout.) Like Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, released the same year, Rocky IV gave his character an opportunity to avenge a past loss—the death of his friend and rival, Apollo Creed, in one, the Vietnam War in the other—and Creed II follows that template, one generation removed. Adonis (Jordan) is already the heavyweight champion, but the victory doesn’t fill the hole where his father should have been. So when Ivan Drago’s son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), catches a flight from Kiev to Philadelphia and publicly challenges Adonis to a fight, he finds it hard to say no—if only because the movie requires him to say yes.
At the core of Creed II’s problems is that its premise diminishes its hero. Why would Adonis, after a lifetime of battling to the top, take on an unknown contender with virtually no track record, based on the thin idea that defeating the son of the man who killed his father would somehow balance the scales? The movie attempts to suggest that it’s because he’s convinced that it will enhance his legacy, that it will make him one of the few boxing champions who’s remembered long after he’s surrendered his belt. But the real reason is because there needed to be a Creed II, and because an idea that sends viewers back to stream the original films is more valuable than one that doesn’t. Having Adonis so easily baited into a match with a challenger who looks to be twice his size just makes him look foolish, especially once we find out that his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is expecting a child. Adonis knows that Viktor is strong enough to injure, even kill him in the ring, and he proceeds with the fight, risking that his own child will grow up fatherless the way he did, because … he’s a big fan of symbolism?
What’s really at stake is not Adonis’ redemption but Rocky’s. Even though Stallone plays a fairly small part in the movie, the script he co-authored ensures that Balboa’s presence hangs over every frame. It’s his decision to train Apollo for the fight that killed him that needs redressing, his victory over Ivan Drago that feels like it’s still not quite enough. Adonis’ story gets twisted to make Rocky’s more interesting.
Coogler’s Creed interrogated the Rocky series, including the great-white-hope subtext of the originals, from the ground up, but Creed II just skims along the surface. Instead of Maryse Alberti’s meticulously choreographed long takes, we get Kramer Morgenthau’s phoned-in cinematography, including a scene in the kitchen of Adonis’ mother (Phylicia Rashad) that’s one of the most indifferently shot things I’ve ever seen in a major studio movie. The whole film is egregiously lazy, committing unforced errors like having a boxing commentator say Adonis, the son of a former heavyweight champion, has “the most unlikely beginnings” for a boxing champion. The movie occasionally works in its own crude way, and there’s enough residual feeling left in Jordan’s and Thompson’s performances to stir even the skeptical heart. But it’s depressing that after Creed’s success, Creed II feels like it’s just a step above a straight-to-video knockoff, designed to get a little more from the first movie’s audience but not to increase it. It’s made as if they don’t expect there to be a Creed III.