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Review: 'Creed II' keeps the Rockyverse fresh

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan are back in the ring.

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan are back in the ring. Warner Bros.

Even if the first Rocky movie was your last Rocky movie, you’ll know the broader strokes of Creed II before heading into the theater. The entire series more or less rehashes the same plot over and over again, with a predictability that would wreck any other franchise. Yet somehow, over 40 years later, the Rocky formula continues to work.

That’s not to say every installment is a sublime work of art. Rocky V is an unmitigated shitshow. Yet each episode does what it sets out to do with some degree of effectiveness. You can always count on a Rocky movie to be fun and sometimes even great.

Creed ended with our hero, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), going the distance with the world champion and losing by split decision, just like his mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) did back in 1976. Unlike Rocky II, however, the second Creed movie opens with Adonis winning the WBC World Heavyweight Championship. This catalyzes the appearance of Creed II’s true antagonists, Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who have been living a spartan lifestyle since Rocky defeated Ivan back in the ’80s.

A promoter named Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) sees potential in a Creed/Drago showdown and begins to pull Adonis’ strings. It isn’t hard to manipulate the young champ into a fight; after all, it was Ivan who killed his father, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), in what was supposed to be an exhibition match. Rocky advises against the fight, but of course, Adonis doesn’t listen. Again, it’s not hard to guess what comes next: hubris, a defeat, an epic training montage, a bloody grand finale in Russia.

The first Creed owed a lot of its success to Ryan Coogler, and with the wunderkind writer-director otherwise engaged in a little film called Black Panther, there was some question as to whether Creed II could capture the same magic as its predecessor. It doesn’t quite get there, but new director Steven Caple Jr. is no slouch, putting his own touches on the saga while keeping things consistent. Like its predecessors, Creed II takes a new look at the pugilistic hero’s journey, tweaks it just enough to find some new terrain, and ultimately builds to an enjoyable, tried-and-true climax.

Within the larger framework there’s also a strong series of paternal subplots. Creed II mirrors Rocky II with an unexpected pregnancy, and though it’s a derivative plot point, it ties together all three families (Balboa, Creed, Drago) and helps each story achieve a nice resolution. Part of me wanted to see Adonis say, “You know what, my dad was murdered in the boxing ring. I almost got murdered by Viktor in the first fight. There are more important things than boxing, and I want to be here for my child,” before turning and walking away. Of course, it’s a Rocky movie, not an existential indie drama, so that wasn’t going to happen, but it would have been a memorable twist.

With Creed II we’ve got another solid entry into the Rockyverse, and a good feeling going into the inevitable Creed III. Since the movie’s release, Stallone all but flat-out stated that this will be the last appearance of Rocky Balboa. It’s hard to take Sly at his word given his history with both Rocky and Rambo—but if this is the end, we do get a nice sense of closure for a character that truly affected American culture.

Either way, it’s Creed’s time now.

Rocky II
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Now showing, area theaters