Three years ago, the Rocky franchise was rebooted with a spin-off of the offspring to the late, great Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone gave “Creed” to the next generation of hopeful “Rocky” fans, 40 years later. Directed by Ryan Coogler, who worked with Michael B Jordan in “Fruitvale Station” and one of this year’s best films “BLACK PANTHER”. Coogler’s “Creed” was a film no one thought it had a fighting chance, especially being a spin-off and the seventh film in a legendary franchise. It was easily one of the 10 best films of 2015, and proved to be a massive hit. A sequel was only inevitable.
Here we are 3 years later with Ryan Coogler out of the fight as director (still on as Executive Producer), and newcomer Steven Caple Jr taking over the corner as director. We pick up with the young boxer Adonis Creed, fighting his way up the ranks in “Creed II”, which brings back stars Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad, as well as the return of one of the most beloved and hated characters of “Rocky” fame; Ivan Drago, again played by Dolph Lundgren, who is now training a fighter of his own, his son, Viktor Drago, played by real life boxer Florian Munteanu.
While “Creed II” doesn’t pack the powerful punch of “Creed”, what it does is feels like it’s drawing heavily on a 40 year old franchise by playing the nostalgia card and plays a huge factor in how you’ll feel about “Creed II”. If you love the prior films, which includes “Creed”, then this one takes home the belt. It’s full of the beats we’ve come to expect from the “Rocky” franchise, but like “Creed” coming in with its own distinct voice and new characters with new dilemmas that are given care and treatment. Even though this isn’t the perfect film “Creed” is this isn’t no hack job either, that’s trying to capitalize solely on past films, but rather serves as a continuing thread to the continuation of the series. The script written once again by Stallone with the help of writers Sascha Penn and Juel Taylor, “Creed II” flawlessly keeps the voice of the series and gives us a profound human drama full of love, loss, revenge, redemption and the concept of family. “Creed II” isn’t just a throwaway entry in the series. For being the 8th film in the franchise it’s pretty damn terrific.
Everyone in the cast is given ample time to develop and it’s amazing how well balanced it all is. Jordan is great as Adonis Creed once again, he knows how to bring a hunger, fire and strength to the character, but also showing us vulnerability and pain. He’s burdened with so much on his path to success and finds a lot of new challenges not just inside the ring but also outside of the ring. The beautiful Tessa Thompson gives another layered performance to Bianca, who takes on a challenging new territory, while supporting Adonis in a way we’ve never seen before. All of “Creed II’s” budding family moments between Michael B Jordan and Tessa Thompson have the lived in, real couple appeal that animated the “Rocky” and Adrian relationship in the franchise’s early days.
The Drago’s, both Ivan (Lundgren) and Viktor (Munteanu) are two men looking to be redeemed in the biggest way possible and they are trying to face their own pain and confusion. The father and son relationship is explored in a deeper way than I expected and I appreciated how they were written and what their dilemma is, so much so that sometimes it’s conflicting in who to root for by the end of the film, particularly when we get another surprise visit that rocks their world and ours by a surprising cameo appearance. I found myself feeling for the Drago’s, yet still feeling for Creed as well. It’s a well written dynamic and creates the exact kind of tension you want in the “Rocky” and “Creed” franchise.
What is “Rocky” or “Creed” without Stallone, who is back as Balboa. It’s a role that Stallone owns. He is so comfortable in the role of “Rocky” that he can do it in his sleep, and sometimes he looks like he actually is. But he can still deliver a somber, inspiring, comeback monologue effortlessly. There’s still plenty of Hallmark advice from Balboa that you could pull and put into an inspirational daily quote on social media. Although he won’t get another Oscar nomination like he did for “Creed”, but both his performance and dialogue is sharper than ever. Rocky takes more of a backseat in this one, but that’s not to say he isn’t still important and his scenes with Adonis or on his own when he is visiting Adrian’s grave are wonderful.
Let’s get to the return of Drago, for a bit who is once again played by Dolph Lundgren. Which of course is the man who killed Adonis’ father Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV”. Lundgren doesn’t just look great but his performance is great too and yes his famous “I will break you” Line is back but said in a slightly different angle. The most interesting thing is that Ivan Drago’s return isn’t marked by just mere vengeance. Drago was basically exiled from everyone he knew after losing to Rocky. His wife left him, and Ivan did nothing but train his son Viktor to fight. Viktor knows nothing else other than fighting, Ivan uses Viktor as a means of redeeming and restoring his and their family name. But Viktor isn’t necessarily cruel and he looks like he should be, but his motives are pure and his skill as a fighter is undeniable. Viktor is about the size of a semi truck, and looks like he could pummel Adonis into gravy.
“Rocky’s” first encounter with Ivan Drago, which takes place at a face to face sit down at “Rocky’s” Italian restaurant could be a scene out of “The Godfather”, and it’s a scene that is absolutely brilliant. I just wish Stallone and Lundgren had more interaction with each other in the film. But we know “Rocky’s“ weight of guilt he’s carried since Apollo’s death is something we’ve seen addressed in earlier movies, and partially in “Creed 2”, so it doesn’t’t need to be a focus here because once again this is Adonis’ story.
Director Steven Caple may lack Coogler’s elegance but he makes up for it with visceral round by round physicality in the boxing ring. By the time the final match comes around we’re so invested in these characters that every blow hurts. Michael B Jordan has improved in the ring, and the hulking presence of Viktor helps that along. Jordan looks jacked.
The boxing action is sharp and powerful, giving the audience plenty of moments to wince and cheer along with, and the moments of human drama are handled expertly. It’s not so much the boxing but the journey that matters, and the taking of life’s punches are more important than any blows suffered in the ring. It’s something Sylvester Stallone has always mastered when it comes to his “Rocky” films, and continues to show with “Creed II”. It embraces the rich mythology of this franchise and expands it. What I love about “Creed II” is that nothing felt wasted. No character felt they were short changed and the challenges felt real and personal. The film sets the stage for a tale of revenge and redemption, not just for Jordan’s Creed, but for everyone involved in the story. “Creed II” completely rose to the occassion and won me over.
GRADE: ★★★★1/2 OUT OF ★★★★★