Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Directed by: Steven Caple Jr. (“The Land”)
Written by: Sylvester Stallone (“Rocky”) and Juel Taylor (debut)
When Sylvester Stallone handed writer/director Ryan Coogler the reigns of his beloved “Rocky” franchise a few years ago, Coogler transformed what was arguably a stagnant series into “Creed” — a nostalgic drama with depth and meaning. At that point, Stallone had already done his part, giving audiences an unexpected Best Picture Oscar win in 1976 for the original film and a franchise-worst contribution with the 1990 sequel “Rocky V.”
Although Stallone redeemed himself in 2006 with “Rocky Balboa,” it was the spinoff “Creed” that proved there was still untapped emotion in Rocky’s world of boxing. In the hands of Coogler, “Creed” became one of the surprise hits of the year and even earned Stallone a much-deserved Oscar nomination for his seventh reiteration of the Rocky character — only this time a lot grayer, lonelier and sadder.
Coogler’s choice to follow Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky friend and competitor Apollo Creed, was an inspired one — and Coogler delivered more than anyone could’ve imagined. Unfortunately, Coogler was unable to return to write or direct “Creed II” (some little movie called “Black Panther” got in the way) and, despite screenplay duties going back to Stallone, the sequel suffers because of it.
The premise, of course, is what will inevitably make “Creed II” hit big at the box office. Adonis squaring off with Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the boxer who killed his father in “Rocky IV,” is every fanboy’s dream. What “Creed II” just can’t seem to recapture is the distinctive voice of Coogler. Director Steven Caple Jr. (“The Land”) tries to do his best impersonation but doesn’t equal Coogler’s creativity or narrative ambition.
What’s more troubling is that in the three years since we’ve seen Adonis, he hasn’t grown as a character. In the first three quarters of “Creed II,” Adonis is unlikeable and immature. When Rocky decides he doesn’t want to train him for a match with Viktor (Mr. Miyagi does the same thing in “The Karate Kid III!”), Adonis throws a predictable fit (“I’m taking this fight with or without you”) and a myriad of sports movie tropes start ruining what should’ve been a memorable return to the ring.
“Creed II” also misses a major opportunity to tell a great story about fathers and sons. Stallone’s script just isn’t strong enough to link the dynamics between Ivan and Viktor, Apollo and Adonis, and Rocky and his estranged boy Robert (Milo Ventimiglia). Somewhere under the clichés there’s something heartfelt to be said, but Stallone and first-time screenwriter Juel Taylor simply don’t land their jabs. But, hey, at least there’s a bunch of training montages.