The best guess is lots and lots and lots of repetitions at the gym which is essentially the strategy behind the eighth Rocky movie in the last 42 years, yet another case of seen-it, done-it and déjà vu all over again. Even if director Steven Caple Jr.’s pace drags during the domestic scenes between the bashful Adonis and his vivacious musician girlfriend Bianca — and the fight scenes are simultaneously predictable and over-the-top — the one thing you can’t deny is these guys sure put in the gym time.
In this iteration of the underdog fighter saga, Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa's former rival, Apollo Creed. Way back in Rocky IV (1985) Apollo was killed in the ring in by Russian giant Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Drago was later thrashed by Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in Moscow. At the conclusion of Rocky IV, you may recall, Rocky made a plea for an end to the Cold War, which came to pass, though I have fewer hopes for Creed II improving global relations.
At the start of Creed II, Adonis — who won the World Boxing Association title with Rocky's coaching in the first Creed movie — is preparing to propose marriage and not thinking about boxing. A promoter friend (Russell Hornsby) suggests he take on a new match: Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father. Young Drago (Munteanu), who we have witnessed in some training montages, is even more of a man-mountain than his dad, and is motivated by mommy abandonment issues. His ice-queen mother (Brigitte Nielsen, making a return cameo) is an important political figure who abandoned the family and left them in disgrace when husband Ivan took a geopolitical beat-down.
Rocky, of course, isn't the coach for the first fight, which is why it went terribly for Adonis. (During the fight, Rocky is seen kneading pizza dough, watching television, and mumbling, "Stop the fight!") The first match takes place at about the 45 minute mark, with Viktor Drago goes all "Hulk, smash!" on Adonis, breaking his ribs, rupturing his kidney and orbital bone, and tossing him around like a pitbull with a chew toy. The fight choreography, which is big on the bone-crunching hooks and short on counter-punching, has an easy-to-follow videogame clarity, but looks painful enough.
Later at the hospital, Rocky shows up in his lopsided porkpie hat, offering those side-of-the-mouth pug insights ("Life hits you with all these cheap shots.") Though Bianca is pregnant, and Adonis runs a serious risk of getting killed, his pride is at stake so Rocky agrees to help him fight again. This time, Rocky institutes a creative training regimen that involves hanging out in the desert with what appears to be a motorcycle gang, chasing cars, punching flames and hammering the ground with a mallet. Although it looks ridiculous, it’s certainly more visually interesting than watching a guy do leg raises for 20 minutes.
After the success of Ryan Coogler-directed Creed, an inventive series reboot, Creed II is a familiar disappointment though the "familiar" part will probably outweigh the disappointing part for audiences who enjoy the films as adult bedtime stories. Still, it’s a shame than an actor as talented as Michael B. Jordan should be limited to punching and getting punched and looking either vulnerable or resolute. As Bianca, Tessa Thompson is a forceful and warm screen presence but she has little purpose here beyond earning a few "ahs" as a new mother while she enables her husband's dubious quest for glory.
For those who need help believing, co-screenwriter Stallone goes back to his favourite device of having the ring announcers tell you how to react, even if it's obvious nonsense. Adonis, we're told, has “the most unlikely beginnings” for a boxing champion (even though his dad was the world champ). There's also, “You can feel the excitement in this arena tonight!” and my favourite, "It feels Shakespearian!" I'm assuming the announcer is going for the dead-father revenge hook from Hamlet, though All's Well that Ends Well or Much Ado About Nothing are closer to the mark.
Creed II. Directed by Steven Caple Jr. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu and Sylvester Stallone. Opens wide November 21.