'Creed II' Spoiler Review: This Rematch Is Not As Great As The First Fight, But Still Packs A Punch

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick...and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Creed II.)

Step back into the ring with Creed II, a sequel to Ryan Coogler's 2015 Rocky spin-off Creed. The main cast is back, but Coogler is not. The result? An exciting, entertaining sequel that never manages to match the strength of the first film. Much like Adonis Creed himself, the Creed franchise will need to forge its own legacy if it wants to continue.

Major spoilers follow.

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Step Back Into the Ring

It's a testament to the power of movies that the Creed franchise has been able to take the events of absolutely ludicrous Rocky IV and work them into not one, but two emotionally earnest films. Rocky IV is a film laden with goofy montages, melodramatic nonsense, and an ending in which a boxing match essentially brings down the Iron Curtain. And yet, from this sequel, a new franchise has taken shape. One filled with genuinely touching, even downright powerful moments.

Creed was something of a minor miracle. The idea – the son of Apollo Creed trains with Rocky Balboa to follow in his father's footsteps – could've easily gone south. But in Ryan Coogler's skilled hands, it became a powerhouse. It certainly didn't hurt that Coogler had the electric, charismatic Michael B. Jordan in the lead as Adonis Johnson. Aiding Jordan: Sylvester Stallone, giving perhaps the best performance of his entire career as the aging, sickly, punch-drunk Rocky Balboa, and Tessa Thompson, right before she launched into superstardom, as Adonis' love interest, Bianca.

Like the original Rocky, Creed worked considerably well, and it wasn't exactly crying out for a sequel. But Hollywood – and Sylvester Stallone – can never let a good thing go. Which brings us to Creed II, a sequel that brings back the main cast, but sadly loses Ryan Coogler – who was too busy making Black Panther to return for a rematch. In his place is Steven Caple, Jr., a young filmmaker with a few feature credits to his name – much like Coogler at the time the first Creed was made.

Does Caple, Jr. make for a worthy successor to Coogler? Is it worth your time to step back into the ring with Creed II? As a huge fan of the first Creed, I wish I could give you a resounding "Yes!" But it's not that simple. Sadly, Creed II feels more like a Rocky sequel than a Creed sequel. That is to say – it's often clumsy, and some of its punches never land.

Yet, it's hard not to get swept up in the film's energy. The main cast is once again a blessing, and in the end, you'd have to have a pretty cold heart to not find yourself swept up in the film's climactic boxing match. One of the overarching themes of Creed II is stepping out of the shadow of the greatness that came before you. This is a lesson the Creed franchise needs to learn. You can only get so much mileage using the Rocky series as a springboard. If the Creed films are to continue, they need to create their own legacy. Things are mostly successful this time. Next time, we might not be so lucky.

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Legacy

Creed II picks up three years after the events of Creed. Adonis Creed (the former Adonis Johnson) is riding high, and with good reason: after his loss in the first film, he's gone on to become the World Heavyweight Champion. He's also decided to propose to Bianca – and she, in turn, says yes. Bianca's hearing loss has increased since the first film, causing her to need hearing aids. Despite this, she's bloomed as a successful singer. And of course, Adonis still has Rocky in his corner, literally and metaphorically.

Yes, life seems good for Adonis Creed. So why doesn't he feel content? This is one of the film's most realistic elements: the constant, nagging feeling of failure – even when you're a success. Self-doubt blankets over Adonis, and he continues to live in the shadow of his famous father, Apollo Creed. Apollo's presence still haunts Rocky in many ways – Rocky feels guilty for not throwing in the towel, and stopping the fight between Apollo and Russian super-boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Apollo in the ring.

In the best thematic fashion, the past is about to come back to haunt Adonis and Rocky. In the Ukraine, Ivan Drago has fallen out of favor with the Russian government. He was once a super-star, but his defeat at the hands of Rocky Balboa has diminished his standing – while in America, and Philadelphia especially, Rocky is a hero. Drago has been training his son, the muscle-bound Viktor (Florian Munteanu), and the two have teamed with flamboyant boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) – a character who is set up to seem important at first, only to vanish from the movie later – to stage the ultimate grudge match: the son of Creed vs. the son of Drago.

Creed II follows the Rocky IV blueprint: it has two big matches, not one. The first has a defeat, the second, a triumph. After being challenged to fight, Adonis is ready and eager to step into the ring with Viktor – even though he soon learns that he and Bianca are going to have a baby. Rocky, however, is not okay with any of this. He fears for Adonis, and he doesn't want to help him train. "You don't think I can win?" Adonis asks, surprised and hurt. It's not that, Rocky swears – but you can hear the uncertainty in his voice.

Adonis battles Viktor in the ring, and the results are brutal. Creed II doesn't shy away from the carnage of two men beating the hell out of each other. The first match, in which we watch Adonis pummeled, is painful to watch. We can almost feel every blow. This is the result of Caple, Jr.'s direction, and Johnson and Munteanu's physicality. The fight between the two men feels real. More than that, Munteanu, as the younger Drago, feels dangerous. He towers over Jordan's Creed, and even though Jordan is in shockingly great shape (seriously; watching Jordan in this movie is going to make you want to hit the gym), Munteanu's muscles seem chiseled from solid granite. Watching him obliterate Adonis in the ring isn't pretty.

But Viktor breaks the rules – he lands a bunch when Adonis is already down – making the match null and void. Adonis gets to keep his Championship title – but he also ends up in the hospital, a broken man. He's furious at Rocky for not being in his corner, and he's furious with himself for losing to a member of the Drago family.

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Predictability and Surprises

You can absolutely, without question, accurately guess where Creed II goes from here. Adonis will heal, and learn to fight again. He'll reconcile with Rocky. He'll get back in the ring with Viktor for a rematch, and win. It's as predictable as predictable can be.

Thankfully, there are a few surprises along the way that keep things fresh. The relationship between Adonis and Bianca continues to flourish, and thankfully, Tessa Thompson has a much bigger role. She's still relegated to being the supportive girlfriend/fiance, but she makes the most of it. Thompson is a force of nature, and she knows exactly how to milk her big moments.

The child Bianca gives birth to, a daughter, has hearing loss at birth, and one of the movie's most powerful moments is a heart-to-heart between Adonis and Rocky, in which Rocky tells Adonis that none of that matters as long as Adonis loves his daughter.

And then there's the relationship between Ivan and Viktor Drago. At the film's start, Ivan Drago and his son are presented as little more than pure evil. They're both constantly scowling, stuck in slow-motion montages as scary music plays. A scene where Ivan shows up at Rocky's restaurant is incredibly menacing, to the point where it almost feels like Rocky is having a meeting with the devil himself. This made me roll my eyes. The one major flaw the first Creed has was an undeveloped antagonist, and I was worried the sequel's script – by Stallone and Juel Taylor, with a story by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker – and I was worried Creed II would suffer the same fate. Or worse, I worried that it would pain its villains in broad strokes, and be little more than a simple revenge tale.

But as Creed II goes on, the characters of Ivan and Viktor, and their tumultuous relationship, began to grow. Boxer Florian Munteanu isn't the most nuanced actor, and he's not given a whole lot to do. But Dolph Lundgren gives perhaps the best performance of his career as the broken and weary Ivan. Ivan sees his son as a tool to work his way back into Russian high society. In many ways, he exploits his son. He exploits the rage that's built up in the boy due to his mother, Ludmila (played by Rocky IV's Brigitte Nielsen in an extended cameo), leaving the Drago's to marry a richer, more prominent man. At first, Ivan doesn't care about any sort of emotional or physical toll this journey might take on Viktor. But by the time of Creed II's final battle, Ivan has adapted; evolved. He finally realizes that climbing back up into high society isn't as important as making sure his son his safe. And so, as Adonis and Viktor have their rematch, and as Adonis pummels and beats Viktor into raw meat, Ivan does what Rocky failed to do for Apollo all those years ago – he throws in the towel. The tender, emotional moment when Ivan tells his beaten son that the defeat is okay is acted wonderfully by Lundgren.

The acting – from Lundgren and the three main leads – is what ultimately saves Creed II. Jordan, who excels at playing cocky-but-tormented characters, once again lights up the screen. His boisterous attitude clashes with his inner turmoil, and the actor does great work playing up Adonis' tamped-down emotions. So much of Adonis' character is built around saying one thing, while clearly feeling completely different, and Jordan sells this perfectly with his eyes, and his pained expressions.

Before the first Creed, I don't think I would have ever considered Sylvester Stallone a "good" actor. To be clear: I never thought Stallone was bad. He was just very onenote, and while I found myself enjoying him in many of his films, I never stopped and thought, "What a great performance!" That changed with Creed, in which the aging actor turned in a touching, vulnerable performance as the slow-witted but good-hearted old Rocky. Stallone continues that here, once again doing some of the best work of his career. The shuffling, shambling, clumsy way he moves through the film is a sight to see – he's a man who has been battered and bruised and broken by too many fights. He's tired, and most of all, he's old. The real Stallone is much more spry, much more youthful for his age. Playing Rocky in the Creed films allows him to act his age, in a sense. The mentor/mentee chemistry between Stallone and Jordan is once again a highlight, although it begins to tip into a repetitive area. Perhaps realizing this, Creed II throws in a very minor subplot about Rocky reconnecting with his estranged son (played in a surprise cameo by Milo Ventimiglia).

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Rematch

That acting isn't enough to always elevate a clumsy, unsubtle script. Subtlety was never the name of the game of the Rocky franchise, but watching Creed II makes you appreciate how smart the script for the first Creed – by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington – was. Here, Stallone and Taylor can't resist leaning heavily into fan-service. As a result, the script has Drago deliver a various of his famous Rocky IV quote "I will break you!" at least four different times. It gets clumsy, and annoying.

Also annoying: ringside announcers who serve as a kind of Greek chorus. This is nothing new to the franchise. Even the first Creed had some of this. But Creed II takes it to the next level. Every time there's a fight, we're forced to listen to announcers more or less narrate the thematic elements of the film. "Can Adonis Creed forge his own legacy?!" they cry. And, "A Creed and a Drago in the ring together again!? I never thought I'd see the day!" You just want them to shut the hell up and allow us to enjoy the fights on their own terms.

Caple, Jr. does a fine job staging those fights – bringing us into the ring with Adonis and Viktor, and getting us up close and personal with each punch. And there's nothing quite as thrilling as hearing Bill Conti's familiar Rock fanfare kick-in during a fight. But the director stumbles with moments outside of the ring. A lengthy training sequence, in which Rocky takes Adonis to a kind of Mad Max–style outdoor gym, borders on painful in how uninspired, and point-and-shoot, it's shot. It's perhaps unfair to compare Caple, Jr. to Coogler, but the entire time I watched Creed II, I couldn't help but think: "I sure wish Ryan Coogler had directed this."

As Creed II draws to a close, it looks like Adonis has finally stepped out of his father's long shadow. A graveside chat effectively closes the book on the legacy. I have no doubt we'll get a Creed III Creed II is already a box office knock-out. But when the third film rolls around, I can only hope it finds a new story to tell. I hope it will stop milking the Rocky franchise, and create something new. And, yes, I hope Ryan Coogler returns for a rematch.