“You can feel the excitement in this arena tonight,” the boxing broadcaster Jim Lampley lies in introducing the climactic fight finale of “Creed II.”
And because that’s not enough, he launches into “It feels Shakespearean.”
And while one is sure that co-screenwriter Sylvester Stallone secretly believes his “Rocky” saga deserves the comparison, the relentless tedium of the preceding 80 minutes or so drive a stake through that delusion.
There’s barely an original thought or novel theme in “Creed II,” a movie that wrings more bloody-nose money from the original “Rocky” sequels in recycling characters, themes, fights and situations and putting Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson instead of Stallone and Talia Shire in them this time.
It’s a wearying two hours+ of the same old story, freshened up with a whole fathers-sons-legacy subtext and story beats so over-familiar it plays like bland comfort food– nothing here to challenge the viewer’s digestive tract or mental faculties.
“Creed” was a blockbuster with awards season buzz a couple of years back, and I frankly was mystified. It’s just “Rocky” warmed over, an African American remake of the classic “underdog” story that never — for one millisecond — lets us feel the hero is an underdog.
“Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler delivered a derivative, generic and yes, slick as all get out crowd pleaser, “Rocky” with the grit and rough edges smoothed out. The slickness extended to the cast. No hard-scrabble mug struggling to make it, but the offspring of a rich and famous boxer — two good looking parents. Hell, they named the kid “Adonis,” for Pete’s sake.
No shy wallflower of a girlfriend, either. Tessa Thompson, a terrific actress, is a beauty of the “runway ready/cover girl” variety. “Ebony” certainly thought so, and they aren’t alone.
“Creed II” is “Rocky IV” without the Cold War politics, resurrecting Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the boxer who killed Adonis Creed’s daddy, Apollo. The gimmick, the giant Ivan and Ice Queen ex-wife (Brigitte Nielsen) spawned another Man Mountain Russian. And Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) is the biggest threat to newly-crowned champ Adonis, and a reminder of the way his father died in a ring throw-weight mismatch back in 1985.
There’s a new director on board, Steve Caple Jr., and he renders the obligatory hype-buildup to the fights bland. Training montages we’ve seen scores of times, almost all of them better than the ones depicted here. Bit players as promoters, trainers, etc., barely register.
The fights are the usual “Rocky” riot of haymakers, the soapy subtexts — pregnancy, nearly-deaf Bianca’s music career, Adonis losing his nerve after a savage beating, Rocky Balboa visiting Adrian’s grave, Adonis visiting his father’s and Phylicia Rashad (as Mrs. Creed, the Mother who Knows a Pregnant Bianca when she sees one) stealing a scene or two because nobody else seems to want possession of them — of only middling interest.
Thompson must be reading her “It Girl” press clippings, because she’s barely present here. She’s been better in literally every other film or TV show I’ve seen her in. They held her interest with a couple of musical performance moments. Jordan loses some of the Young Creed’s Angry Young Man edge. Not all of it. Stallone is just set dressing delivering banalities about the ring being “the loneliest place in the world.”
I liked “Rocky,” but I never developed the undying devotion to it that much of America did upon release, and over the years of sequels that followed. Similarly, I found “Creed” more or less watchable, but thought it a decent genre picture buried under hype and over-the-top praise.
But one thing you can still say about the first three “Rocky” pictures is that Stallone made the character evolve and gave him real pitfalls to face — wealth and fame sapping an athlete’s hunger, problems of working class poverty replaced by the problems of affluence.
Jordan doesn’t have that luxury here, with Stallone just cutting and pasting chunks of the earlier movies into each new script and leaving out the heart. The best line is the elder Drago using his family problems to motivate his basically motherless son.
“He’s why She Left!”
But the talented leads here have options, talent that points to careers that will take them places — different places. If they’re trapped by more mediocre “Creed” sequels, that’ll be on them.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Cast:Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundren, Florian Munteanu, Wood Harris
Credits:Directed by Steven Caple Jr., script by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor . An MGM/Warners-New Line release.
Running time: 2:10