Rocky versus Apollo Creed, Rocky versus Clubber Lang, Rocky versus Ivan Drago – even if we didn’t know how these matches ended, we could could guess, because Rocky’s virtue is his unshakable perseverance.
But what if Rocky had to fight Rocky?
This is more or less the question posed in Creed II, if we accept that Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is not just Rocky’s pupil and protege, but his dramatic stand-in.
In this sequel to the spin-off, Adonis is doing well as a heavyweight, living in Los Angeles with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in a swanky modern apartment, stopping by the mansion of his mom (Phylicia Rashad) from time to time, beating other boxers when called upon, but for the most part living a glamorous and cozy life.
All is well until word reaches him via ESPN that he’s received a challenge from a fearsome Russian, and not just any Russian. The fellow’s name is Victor (Florian Munteanu), and he’s the son of Ivan Drago, the fighter who infamously killed Adonis’ father, Apollo, in the ring during the events of Rocky IV.
Early training sequences draw parallels between Victor, stacking crates on a loading dock and training with rusty metal objects, and Rocky Balboa circa 1976. Victor is a blue-collar guy, running in vintage jogging suits, working out in dingy gyms. When he and Ivan come to the States to issue a public challenge to Adonis, they stop in Philadelphia and take a stroll up the Art Museum steps – literally following in Rocky’s footsteps.
The two stop in Adrian’s restaurant to confront Rocky, who still has a rather low opinion of Ivan, and who gets an ominous vibe from Victor. Perhaps because he recognizes the furious hunger in the younger man’s eyes -- the look of a motivated fighter with something to prove.
Thus, when Adonis decides to take the fight and asks Rocky to be his trainer, the doubt in Rocky’s eyes is unmistakable. And offensive to Adonis, who sees it as disrespect and a betrayal.
The rift is part of the rather transparent and predictable structure of Creed II, which feels more like an indifferent Rocky sequel than a movie with the reinvented dynamism of Creed. The surrogate father/son dynamic between Adonis and Rocky feels underdramatized here, and the movie feels less interested in creatively disrupting Rocky lore than repeating it -- “Eye of the Tiger” themes from Rocky III and actual dialogue from Rocky IV (Ivan says, “My son will break him” about 50 times).
Director Steven Caple Jr. (The Land), who has taken over for Rocky rebooter Ryan Coogler, preserves some the freshened, modernized feel of Creed. He ditches the old Bill Conti musical cues almost completely and goes with a hip-hop soundtrack, augmented with songs from A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, and Pharrell. There are also new tunes from Bianca, who finds a receptive audience for her music in Los Angeles (Thompson and rapper Gunna collaborate on “Midnight,” featured in a key moment in the film).
This gives Creed II some of the updated energy that enlivened the “original” Creed, but it’s weird seeing the Rust Belt spirit of Rocky transposed to sunny Los Angeles, and we sense that the farther Adonis gets from Philadelphia -- somehow a key source of his power -- the more danger he is in. You can’t recapture the eye of the tiger under a palm tree, and the movie concedes as much.
Certainly we fear for Adonis when we see him training daintily in a swimming pool while Caple jump-cuts to Victor doing neck lifts with a leather strap and a 7 million-pound barbell. Also, Adonis acquires the worst corner man in the history of boxing, played by Wood Harris, who in the course of a bad round actually turns to Bianca and shrugs.
What in the name of Burgess Meredith is going on?
Nothing that can’t be worked out by the audience in the first five or 10 minutes. The movie sticks to formula, and spells everything out. One key bout occurs in Moscow, which the filmmakers helpfully note is in Russia.