The weight of expectation looms large over Creed II. Ryan Coogler’s Creed masterfully revitalised the Rocky saga back in 2015, turning what was once a franchise on its last legs into one of Hollywood’s most anticipated narratives. With Coogler passing on directing the film due to a little movie called Black Panther it’s Steven Caple Jr. who fills what are now gargantuan shoes, and while the sequel doesn’t scale the heights of the original, that’s more of a testament to Coogler’s achievement than any failings of this hugely satisfying sophomore effort.
We’re reintroduced to Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) on the eve of his ascendancy to world heavyweight champion, but he’s given almost no time to rest on his laurels. As fight promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) gleefully declares, “Rumble in the Jungle didn’t just manifest itself. You need a narrative. Something that sticks to the ribs”. That narrative comes in the form of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) – who literally killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades ago – and his imposing son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who challenge Adonis to a heavyweight bout.
At first glance, bringing the Dragos into the Creed franchise seems like a risky move. The world that Coogler’s film is set in feels grounded and authentic. Rocky IV – where Drago was first introduced – is a campy sequel, and Creed vs. Drago: Part II almost sounds like contrived fan-service. But the unexpected upside is that the script by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor (Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker also share story credit) gives Lundgren a chance to add more dimensions to Drago Sr. Shunned by his country and wife after Rocky defeated him, Ivan is desperate to bring honour back to the Drago name and rejoin the Russian elite, and Creed II turns him from a cartoonish villain into a sympathetic human.
That sympathy extends to Viktor – whom Ivan is frequently abusive to – but Munteanu isn’t afforded much dialogue to make the younger Drago into a fully rounded character. Still, he definitely makes an impression when he steps into the ring, and while they’re not as stylish or ambitious as Creed’s single-take sequences the boxing is still very impactful, with the great use of POV camera angles ensuring that we feel each of the punches that are thrown. Even though you’ll implicitly know how each fight will end long before the final bell dings the sameness is assuaged by a number of crowd-pleasing moments, many of which are anchored by another memorable score from Ludwig Göransson (who, between Creed II, Black Panther, and Venom, is having an incredible year) that mixes the contemporary with the nostalgic and knows exactly when and how to make its presence felt.
Though the boxing may be lacking in suspense, thankfully the same is not true for the scenes that take place outside the ring. From a tense, earned rift with Rocky over whether or not to take the Drago fight, to figuring out what kind of man – and parent – he wants to be, Adonis is grappling with a lot of uncertainty. All of that mental and emotional turmoil is powerfully portrayed by Jordan, who can do more with a grunt than other actors do with full pages of dialogue. It’s an awards-worthy performance that solidifies his status as one of Hollywood’s most exciting leading men.
It helps that he shares fantastic, effortless chemistry with Tessa Thompson, whose pleasingly fiery turn as the independently-minded Bianca continues to be a far cry from other love interests we’ve seen in the past. Phylicia Rashad also shines as Adonis’ adoptive mother Mary Anne, who gets more to do this time round. As for Stallone – that he’s still adding subtle, heartfelt notes to Rocky 42 years after the character first graced cinema screens is an impressive feat.
Moreso than any boxing match or training montage – and Creed II’s extended workout sequence is fantastic – the real draw of these films is spending time with these richly drawn characters. Caple Jr. is fully aware of that, and it makes Creed II is an excellent addition to the Rocky franchise.
Creed II opens in UK cinemas on 30 November.