If we’ve learned anything from boxing movies, it’s that the brutality of the sport is not in direct contrast to the emotions behind those punches. Divorcing passion in the ring from passion outside the ring is both impossible and disingenuous. Creed II lives up to its legacies, in and out of the ring, and on and off screen.
I’ll get to the plot and the other juicy bits in a moment, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the camera’s preoccupation with Creed (Michael B. Jordan) himself. As we see him in the very first scene, he’s just about to step into the ring to attempt winning the world championship belt. Through the sportscasters we can hear but not see, we learn of his sustained rise to the top of the sport after the end of 2015’s Creed. The regular pre-fight chaos is swirling around him as he tries to get in the right headspace. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is there to cheer and wince ringside. As the calm before the storm begins to set in, we hear a voice from just outside the frame of the film. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who shares a screenwriting credit) appears at the perfect time to help Creed focus, but we don’t see him until he comes to Creed. This entire time, we stay on Creed. It’s his film. The franchise’s baton has been firmly passed, and Rocky is no longer the emotional anchor. From here on, not only does the plot revolve around Creed, but the camera rarely leaves him too. This multilayered approach to storytelling, both expository and sensory, is a tenet of extraordinary filmmaking.
OK, now on to the punchy-punchy.
While Creed has been enjoying his new stardom, professional success, reunion with the cancer-free Rocky, and his possibly perfect romantic relationship, a storm has brewed in Ukraine. Ivan Drago and his son Viktor (Dolph Lundgren and Florian Munteanu) have been training. Pulling heavily from the incidents in Rocky IV, Creed II begs for a rematch, son to son. All of the men involved within this battle have such deep histories in the sport and their relationships that there’s no clear way to decide the best course of action. Beyond the physical pain, there’s emotional aching to address. This isn’t just a single boxing match; it could be literal life or death.
Scattered around the periphery of Creed II are further personal stories, but they all act as support for the central bout in the film. Creed moves to Los Angeles and his relationship with Bianca matures and blossoms. Rocky deals with his loneliness and family issues. Even the Dragos have their own burden of loss and international shame. The inclusion of these various tracks add dimension to the characters and their fights. Rocky frequently asks Creed why he fights, and these character explorations serve as the various answers to that query.
Perhaps the greatest overall message that Creed II offers is that these backstories and emotions are not weaknesses. Creed’s connections to the past and his investment in his future are what make him strong. Realizing why the Dragos fight not only humanizes them, but it makes them more threatening adversaries. Their emotions help us realize what they have to lose, and that’s a dangerous thing.
Just as Adonis Creed is a worthy of the Apollo Creed legacy, Creed II is another deserving addition to the Rocky canon.