Creed II review: 'Holds fast to Rocky traditions and, though rather predictable, is utterly irresistible'
Does Sylvester Stallone ever tire, I wonder, of playing his most famous character? Possibly not, because Rocky Balboa has been a formidable cash cow, the beating heart of a boxing franchise that will presumably only end when Stallone does (possibly not even then) and has already earned $1.5 billion. Creed II is likely to add substantially to that tally because it holds fast to the Rocky traditions and, though rather predictable, is utterly irresistible from the start.
In Ryan Coogler’s very impressive 2016 reboot Creed, we met Adonis ‘Donnie’ Creed (Michael B Jordan), the illegitimate son of Balboa’s old rival and friend Apollo who, as Rocky scholars will know, died at the hands of Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Donnie is a wild young man who bare-knuckle fights at the weekends and dreams of emulating his dad and turning pro. When he sought out Rocky, the old man agreed to become his trainer for a string of fights that turned him into a genuine contender.
As Creed II opens, things are looking good for Donnie: he’s the newly crowned heavyweight world champion and is engaged to his true love, singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Rocky has recovered well from the cancer scare he endured in the previous film and, in short, life couldn’t be better in the Creed camp until sinister forces stir in the Ukraine. A brutal young fighter called Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) has been knocking seven bells out of all-comers and now demands that Donnie face him. As Viktor is, of course, the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Donnie feels honour-bound to avenge his father’s death, but Rocky’s not keen, and the two part company when he refuses to coach the kid.
Donnie should have listened because when he and Viktor fight in Las Vegas, Creed is given a right hiding. As he slowly recovers in hospital, Donnie wonders if he’ll ever fight again, but eventually he realises (as we did ages ago) that a rematch with Viktor is inevitable, and that his old coach needs to be in his corner.
Once we see the huge, chiselled head of Dolph Lundgren appear on the horizon, we know that Creed II is intent on playing the dangerous game of nostalgia.
The idea of a Russian villain is very 80s, and so is Brigitte Nielsen, the former Mrs Stallone, who turns up midway through playing poor Viktor’s feckless mother, whose departure some years ago may explain the young fellow’s bottomless pit of rage. You could laugh at all this over-neat remedial psychology, but there’s no time because Creed II rattles along at a very pleasing pace, and warmly embraces its moments of silliness. The fight sequences are very entertaining, skilfully edited action sequences enhanced by the hackneyed insights of the TV commentators in which every blow resounds like the hammer of Thor.
But Steven Caple Jr’s film, which was co-written by Stallone, is not dumb enough to rely solely on boxing and trash talk. There’s a moving sub-plot involving Donnie’s anxieties when he discovers he’s about to become a father, and then of course there’s his tempestuous relationship with Rocky, which entails more sulks, strops and tearful reconciliations than most marriages.
Back in the late 90s, in a film called Cop Land, Stallone revealed his best kept secret: that he could, only on special occasions mind, act. His portrayal of the elderly Rocky in these two Creed films has surprising poignancy, and depth: he watches the progress of his young protégé with a wise and watery eye, recognising that Donnie must make his own mistakes, but ever ready to step in to help when things get out of hand.
There’s an almost Shakespearean grandeur to his ringside presence: he’s the King Lear of the canvas, if you will, and his presence gives the films a vital core of emotion, and continuity. They work well, but wouldn’t work at all without him.
(12A, 129 mins, releasing Nov 30)
Also releasing this week:Ralph Breaks the Internet review: 'A high concept script pokes fun at our online obsessions'
The Wild Pear Tree review: 'Ceylan’s film is excellent, a joy for those with three hours to spare'
Disobedience review: 'The acting’s excellent, but the story feels over-deliberate at times'