It’s almost impossible by now to do anything new with a male-led boxing film. Every aspect of the sport and the souls of the men driven to partake in it has been covered, whether in the crowdpleasing style of Rocky or something darker like Raging Bull. In 2015, Ryan Coogler’s Creed got by on technical brio and the novelty factor of expanding the Rocky universe, and with that novelty (and Coogler) gone, Creed 2 faces an uphill battle. A perfectly capably told story with impressively bruising fights, it does also suffer from an inescapable familiarity.
After respectably losing the climactic fight of the original, Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) has risen through the boxing ranks by the time we’re reintroduced to him, and, in a hefty opening brawl, wins the title of world heavyweight champion. Buoyed by the continual support of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who also returns to script duty), he’s on top of the world, following his victory by proposing to Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and starting to plan a whole life with her. This future is thrown into disarray by the re-emergence of Soviet fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), and his terrifying son Victor (Florian Munteanu).
With the family legacy of Ivan killing Apollo Creed in the ring, Adonis finds it hard to resist Victor’s challenge for his newly gained title. It’s here that the story runs into a couple of problems. Firstly, having Adonis driven so obviously by blinkered pride – taking the fight despite the protestations of everyone who cares about him – makes him a far more frustrating protagonist than he was in the first film and, more importantly, means that Victor has the more affecting motivation. We learn that the Dragos are outcasts after Ivan’s defeat at the hands of Rocky and that to gain a championship would allow them back into a society that shuns them.
It’s all very well performed, especially by Jordan and Thompson, but the on-the-nose script struggles to make Adonis’s journey compelling for much of the first half of the film. All the high stakes are in Victor’s corner, and watching Adonis risk his life simply because an enormous beast of a man he has never met tells him to do so isn’t exactly relatable. Creed 2 also lacks the firecracker spark and energy that Coogler brought to proceedings, though new director Steven Caple Jr does bring some unique sensibilities of his own.
A training montage out in the desert sometimes borders on the surreal, with echoes of the mesmerising exercise drills of Beau Travail, Caple Jr’s indie background making itself most obvious in this sequence. He also rises to the challenge of the grand final fight with gusto. It might not be the astonishing single take bout of the first, but it’s still an absolutely thrilling battle with a spot-on instinct of exactly when to go for the pure ‘80s sincerity that characterised Rocky IV in particular. There’s only so much you can ever really do with a boxing movie, but for fans of the genre or Michael B Jordan, there’s a lot to like about Creed 2.