It seemed unlikely that a “Rocky” sequel could feel fresh and exciting in this day and age.
And then Ryan Coogler came along with “Creed” in 2015 and proved it wasn’t just possible, it was vital. His film smartly centered on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of late Rocky opponent Apollo Creed, rather than the Italian Stallion himself. It became an instant classic in the boxing movie canon, scoring a Golden Globe for Sylvester Stallone as an emotionally vulnerable and battle-weary Rocky Balboa. With the critical and commercial success of “Creed,” it’s logical and in fact, necessary for a sequel, especially with the unfinished business Adonis has with yet another boxing dynasty.
The Creed legend continues where it must in “Creed II,” with a showdown against Viktor (Romanian-German boxer Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Adonis’ father, Apollo, in the ring in “Rocky IV.” Much like his father, Viktor is a monosyllabic mountain of hardened man meat, with a training regimen as brutalist as the architecture in their native Kiev, but far less technologically advanced than his father’s. There are no computers or injections — just hours of hauling concrete and miles run on desolate roads. The pair seek to restore their damaged reputation by challenging the newly minted heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis, in a match over three decades in the making.
Director Steven Caple Jr. takes the reins from Coogler for “Creed II,” and along with writers Cheo Hodari Coker, Juel Taylor and Sascha Penn, as well as Coogler and Stallone, maintains a firm grasp on the characters and world. Much of the film is a family melodrama, exploring generational grudges and traumas, the losses acutely felt and patterns carried over. Adonis found a father figure in Rocky, but Rocky balks at the match against the bigger, meaner, faster Viktor, who is dangerous because he has nothing to lose. Adonis’ sense of abandonment comes surging back, lighting a reckless fire within that only puts him in danger and threatens his burgeoning future with singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson).
The film simmers before it explodes, and it often, it maintains the slow burn for a moment too long in the quieter moments between family members. But when Caple really lets “Creed II” run wild, it’s breathtaking. There’s a particularly compelling training montage set in a minimalist desert gym where Adonis strips it down to the basics and learns to get as mean and nasty as Viktor, flipping tires and sledgehammering the dust under the punishing California sun.
Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau maintains the visual style of Coogler and his director of photography, Maryse Alberti — dizzying long takes punctuated with powerful, thudding quick shots in the ring that land as heavily as the punches do. The photography of the matches and editing is clean, crisp, clear and incredibly visceral. Following up a film that felt as new and exciting as “Creed” is a tall order, and “Creed II” isn’t quite as efficient and effecting as Coogler’s film. But Caple Jr. and the writers do justice to the journey of the characters while exploring the depths of their pain and redemption, and amazingly enough, humanizing the impenetrable force that is the Drago clan.