"Creed II" An Unusually Satisfying Sequel

If the worst that can be said for boxing pic “Creed II” is that it’s a touch predictable, bravo to 30-year-old director Steven Caple Jr. and his cast and crew.

Stepping in almost seamlessly for “Creed” writer-director Ryan Coogler (who was off making eventual billion-dollar grosser “Black Panther”), Caple ably imbues the sequel with the same mix of bravado and poise that made “Creed” so rousing. And just as “Creed” was a great “Rocky” film in its own right, “Creed II” is a fantastic “Creed” and “Rocky” sequel, cashing in the cheesy jingoism of 1985’s “Rocky IV” for something surprisingly substantial.

At long last: a movie deserving to bear the weight of the death of Apollo Creed at the hands of Russian battering ram Ivan Drago.

Star Michael B. Jordan builds on the title character here in a way that persuasively echoes the father Adonis never met, the actor either consciously or subconsciously mimicking the mannerisms that Carl Weathers lent Apollo so many years ago. The story begins a few years removed from the last film, our lead on the verge of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. But something else weighs heavier on his mind: an impending marriage proposal to girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson, given an expanded role this time around).

Adonis’ journey to the top of the boxing world is complete by the end of act one, paving the way for a bracingly effective story of fathers and sons, legacies and lives lived vicariously. More than thirty years after “Rocky IV,” Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren reprises the aforementioned Ivan Drago, now a grizzled, forgotten post-Soviet artifact living on the fumes of past glory and the promise of a son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who offers their surname a chance to reclaim boxing glory.

The dramatic pull of Adonis fighting the son of his father’s killer is obvious but riveting all the same, made even more engrossing by the shadow of Rocky Balboa.

Here Sylvester Stallone plays the former champ for the eighth time on film (he also shares writing credit with newcomer Juel Taylor), wielding the right balance of droll Rocky-isms and haunted stares to allow Balboa to continue his long, slow ride into the sunset. Initially declining to train Adonis in the run-up to his first fight with Viktor, Rocky ultimately comes back into the fold, giving Ivan an in to the ultimate unsettled score.

Apart from some unconvincing green screen work that threatens to sink the movie’s final fight, Caple’s film is a good-looking one, its visuals efficiently linking it to both its immediate predecessor and “Rocky IV” (similarities between the movies’ training sequences are appreciated).

And while rich in appearance, the film is richer in thematics, its dramatic triangle of Balboa, Creed, and Drago satisfying for the duration. Glimpses into the hard life of the Dragos cut perfectly against Adonis’ ballooning wealth and fame, while Rocky subsists somewhere between the two: all three world champions with world-class demons.

Sports movies are inherently predictable. The clichés of “Creed II,” important ingredients in their own right, are essential to delivering the film’s emotional and visceral thrills, which it does consistently. The only question left unanswered is how “Creed III” could possibly match it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 21, 2018
Studio: MGM, New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Screenwriters: Sylvester Stallone, Juel Taylor
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan, Dolph Lundgren, Tessa Thompson, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality)