Three years ago, following decades of languishing in junk cinema, Sylvester Stallone rebounded with a magnificent, career-best performance reprising his iconic turn as Rocky Balboa in Creed. His loss in Best Supporting Actor, and to the lackluster Mark Rylance of all people, remains for me one of the more heartbreaking Oscar decisions of recent years.
If Creed II does not quite find Stallone reaching Oscar-caliber heights, it does prove the 2015 picture was no fluke - he again turns in one hell of a performance and is matched every step of the way by the brilliant Michael B. Jordan, who too richly deserved recognition for his work in the first film.
Creed II opens on Jordan’s Adonis Creed riding high. He has scored a series of high-profile boxing victories and, more importantly, successfully proposed marriage to girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Adonis is torn over Bianca’s desire to begin a new life together in Los Angeles, a move that would bring them closer to his adoptive mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) but create enormous distance between Adonis and Rocky, who will surely never leave Philadelphia.
While Adonis considers his options, an old foe from Rocky’s past has the young boxer in his sights. Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his role from Rocky IV), the former Soviet boxer who killed Adonis’ father in the ring and went on to lose to Rocky in a Moscow showdown, is hellbent on getting his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) into the ring against Adonis. Viktor issues a formal challenge, which Adonis ultimately accepts - despite Rocky’s refusal to support and train him for the match.
With Rocky on the sidelines, Adonis and Bianca indeed make the move westward, settling down in a lavish apartment near Mary Anne and preparing for the upcoming fight. When the face-off produces no winner but leaves Adonis riddled with injuries and overwhelmed with melancholy, Rocky agrees to travel to LA to get him back on his feet in preparation for a rematch against the pugnacious Viktor.
Creed II was directed by Steven Caple, Jr., who proves himself a plenty capable filmmaker, albeit not a master at the same level as Ryan Coogler, who so vividly directed the first picture. Likewise, the Sylvester Stallone-Juel Taylor screenplay is a more familiar, less engrossing effort than the writing from the 2015 film - but that’s hardly to say it’s a disappointment. Stallone is deeply invested in not only Rocky and Adonis but also the supporting players, providing Thompson, Rashad and even Lundgren grand opportunities to shine and flex their talents.
For fans of the Rocky franchise, Creed II is a downright must-see that delivers the goods in a fashion far more stirring and satisfying than most entries in the series. If you haven’t yet seen it, go soon - and with as full and ebullient an audience as possible.