'Creed II' Review: A Very Good Boxing Drama That Can't Quite Top The First One

It is perhaps fitting that a film all about characters struggling to escape the crushing weight of expectations would itself have to grapple with similar expectations. Such is the case with Creed II, a follow-up to the superlative 2015 film Creed, which remixed the original Rocky with panache and style that had been missing from the franchise for a long time. Creed II also remixes a number of elements from most of the overall Rocky franchise, while telling a story whose beats are easily familiar to anyone with a passing awareness of the boxing-movie genre, boosted largely by its cast.Once again, Michael B. Jordan steps into the ring as Adonis Creed, the son of the late boxer Apollo Creed. The man who literally killed Apollo in the ring, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), is back for this sequel and this time...it's personal. (Forgive the #dadjoke, but that's basically the whole conflict of the film, on both sides.) Drago is desperate to reestablish his credentials in the former Soviet Union, and sees his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) as the ticket. Specifically, he goads Viktor into challenging Adonis for a flashy, publicity-stunt-style fight after our hero wins the heavyweight championship of the world in the opening act. But publicity stunt or not, Adonis ignores the warnings of his trainer Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, of course) and finds that Viktor, like his father back in the 1980s, is terrifyingly brutal in the ring and may be impossible to beat.The operative word in the last sentence is "may," because while Viktor sure seems like an insurmountable foe, he's also the antagonistic fighter in a film in the Rocky franchise, and only the 1976 original ends with the title character not winding up victorious in the ring. (And even then, he won a moral victory.) If there's anything holding back Creed II, it's the simple fact that the eighth film in a four-decade franchise can only do so much with the same few tropes that appear in most boxing movies. It's also worth noting that Stallone, unlike in the previous installment, co-wrote Creed II, with Juel Taylor, and there's a slight shift back to Rocky that doesn't quite work. To wit: after Adonis proposes marriage to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), they soon learn that she's pregnant. When Bianca gives birth, it's a big day, and we experience their child for the first time...through Rocky's perspective. Not, y'know, from the point of view of the title character of the movie.It's moments like that which tend to frustrate because the core cast of Creed II is good enough to make even the most familiar cliches work. It can't be emphasized enough that Michael B. Jordan is a movie star in the making; his excellent turn as Killmonger in Black Panther coupled with his return as Adonis simply solidifies that he ought to be getting the best possible projects moving forward. There aren't too many genuine surprises in this film, but Jordan sells each moment, such as when Adonis has to struggle mentally as well as physically after a particularly rough and gruesome match in the ring, with such intense emotion. He elevates, and often transcends, the material. The same goes for Thompson; as an actress, she seems too smart and uninterested in playing bland love-interest characters who blend into the background. Thus, Bianca is feisty in ways that feel fresh here, even once she becomes a mother to a child who Adonis may orphan the way Apollo inadvertently orphaned him.So much of Creed II is about characters obsessed with legacies, their own and others. The script feels as if it's trying to further the legacy of the original films, specifically Rocky IV. We're meant to feel a surge of excitement or tension when, early in the film, Rocky encounters none other than Ivan, the once-fierce Russian man who said, "I will break you", and they stare each other down in public. And the same goes for other cameo performances tying into the franchise at large. There's perhaps more spoon-feeding of fan-service in Creed II than in the predecessor, suggesting a circular quality to the film that the Ryan Coogler-directed 2015 film avoided.Creed felt like a major step forward compared with prior Rocky films. Coogler was able to craft a story with muscular energy, propulsive action, and intelligence that made it stand out from other attempts to revive franchises from the 1980s. Creed II is directed capably enough by Steven Caple, Jr., and there are few better young actors you could ask to top-line such a film as Michael B. Jordan. And as a boxing movie, this is pretty solid, the equivalent of a song you've heard 100 times being covered by a new artist. But Creed felt like a new song; Creed II feels like a decent cover of that new song./Film Rating: 7 out of 10