“Creed II” continues the story of Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed, opponent-turned-friend of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) from the “Rocky” movies. In 2015’s “Creed,” Rocky coached Donnie to a loss on points after fighting to the time limit with the world heavyweight champion, which mirrored the finish of the first “Rocky” movie, where Rocky lost on points after going the distance with Apollo. Viewers knew that if the mirroring was to continue, Donnie would win the title in the next movie as Rocky did in “Rocky II.” Donnie does win the title in this movie, but it’s not at the climax like in “Rocky II,” it’s about five minutes in. Let it not be said that this franchise can’t still throw in a surprise now and then.
Donnie’s win catches the attention of former fighting phenom Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son, the active Viktor (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu), since exiled from Russia to Ukraine because of Ivan’s loss to Rocky in “Rocky IV.” Viktor would never be taken seriously on the world boxing stage merely as the son of a forgotten legend, but he can make a name for himself playing up his family’s history with the Creed family. Ivan beat Apollo to death in “Rocky IV,” and a promoter (Russell Hornsby) wants to sell the next generation of the feud. The Dragos antagonize Donnie until he agrees to a title match to defend his family’s honor. Rocky knows that Donnie isn’t thinking clearly, and knowing that he himself failed to save Apollo, refuses to have any part of the training or fight, which Donnie thinks is cowardly.
But the movie isn’t all about the fights and the surrounding politics. It’s also about Donnie and his growth as a man. He gets engaged to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and the two have a child. He’s scared about how he’ll fare as a father since he didn’t grow up with one. He’s also got injuries piling up, to the point where there’s a question of whether he’ll be able to be there physically for his daughter if he continues his boxing career, especially against the powerhouse Drago. Is his need for revenge worth risking his family’s future?
The film has everything you’d want in a Creed (or Rocky) movie: the dramatic fights, the tender little moments where we see that the big tough guys are softies at heart, the excellent chemistry between actors (Jordan/Stallone, Jordan/Thompson, Jordan/Phylicia Rashad as his adoptive mother), and the training montages where you don’t know what half the exercises do, but they look amazing. Poor Michael B. Jordan looks like he’s getting tenderized like a hung steak throughout this movie, the punishment once again paying off with a performance worthy of the “Rocky” legacy.
The only downside of this movie is that Jordan, Stallone, et al already proved that they can make an exceptional return to the “Rocky” franchise in the 2010’s with the first “Creed” movie three years ago. The novelty has worn off a bit, and the fact that this one isn’t immediately garnering Oscar talk makes it a relative disappointment. Also, I did come away with a nitpick about the film’s climax, which depends on a character being in mortal danger, where I didn’t feel that the film did a strong enough job of conveying that they were within an inch of their life. Still, “Creed II” is one of the best wide releases we’ve had in some time, and it’s definitely worthy of your business in this downtime between now and the frantic Christmas season.
“Creed II” is rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality. Its running time is 130 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.