21 December 2018

Creed II review

Is it OK to admit that I was kind of dreading the release of Creed II? It's predecessor is, at least in my opinion, one of the best old-fashioned capital M Movies released this decade, and the promise of a sequel to that - a sequel without writer/director Ryan Coogler at the helm and acting as a follow-up of sorts to Rocky IV, of all things - was always going to be something of a shaky proposition at best. After all, the Rocky franchise is almost defined by the phrase "diminishing returns", and my love for Creed meant that I didn't want that to happen again here. Happily though, my fears were misplaced - Creed II might not reach the heights of Creed (and in fairness, I really don't think it was ever going to), but it still manages to be a worthy sequel and an entertaining movie in its own right.

The plot couldn't be simpler if it tried, what with the whole film being pretty much just a new lick of paint on the bones of virtually any boxing movie (and especially Rocky IV), but that's not really intended as a criticism - no one is going to see these movies for innovative storytelling or shocking plot twists, after all. Instead, Creed II is more than happy to hit the beats you expect when you expect them, choosing to focus it efforts not on subverting expectations or doing something brilliantly original but instead on just delivering a really good version of what it is, and that's exactly where it succeeds.

Not straight away, mind. Creed II only really starts to shine when it gets to where it wants to be (that being the now inter-generational rivalry between Rocky, Creed and Drago), and that unfortunately requires the first half hour or so of the film to do some necessary but not actually all that engaging set up. It's only when the Dragos enter the picture for real that Creed II comes to life - before that point it can't help but feel like a film that's simply going through the motions because that's exactly what it is, and as good as the rest of it might be, it's still a shame that it opens in such a perfunctory manner.

Still, when it does get going Creed II quickly becomes a much better movie, and is even in places arguably as strong as Creed ever was, particularly in the boxing sequences themselves. Sure, there's nothing as flashy and overtly impressive as the one-take boxing sequence from Creed or as fist-pumping-ly victorious as Creed's finale, but there's something to be said for director Steven Caple Jr's ability to really make it feel like a big hit has landed, to the point where I found myself physically wincing from the force of the blows multiple times throughout.

It helps, of course, that we empathise so easily with main character Adonis Creed, partly thanks to the excellent performance given both in and out the ring by Michael B. Jordan (who between this and Black Panther might be 2018's stand out star) and partly thanks to the script from Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone, which is far better than something claiming to be a sequel of sorts to Rocky IV has any right to be. Seeing Adonis struggle as he attempts to overcome the obstacles that Creed II throws at him (not all of which are purely physical, which makes a nice change for this kind of film) is a genuine pleasure, as is seeing his relationship with Tessa Thompson's Bianca and Stallone's Rocky change and evolve over the course of the film. That's not to say that Creed II has an emotional core as strong of that in Creed, of course, but then again I can count on no fingers the amount of films that have engaged me on that level as well as Creed did in the time since its release, so it's hard to hold that against it.

And believe it or not, Creed II actually benefits a lot from its status as a sort-of sequel to Rocky IV, using the Dragos not just to give Adonis a more personal investment in the fight but also to right some of the wrongs committed by Rocky IV and maybe even make it a better film in retrospect. I frowned when the Dragos were first introduced in Creed II as the same kind of one-dimensional Russian villains that would've been in Rocky IV, but it doesn't take long for Creed II to start fleshing them out in interesting ways, and come the end of the film even they've each undergone their own little character arc that only adds to Creed II's status as a really well-rounded and solid movie.

So no, Creed II isn't as good as Creed. It's a little messier, a touch less satisfying, not as emotionally engaging as its predecessor. But that doesn't prevent it from also being a damn fine movie in its own right, exciting and engrossing and fundamentally entertaining in a way that seemingly so few films are these days. Ultimately, if not for the existence of Creed, I suspect that Creed II would be almost inarguably the best film that the Rocky franchise has to offer - and if there's any franchise that has shown us that second place can still be a victory, it's this one.

4 stars

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