I'm not sure Creed (95 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes; 82 from Metacritic) was quite as good as everyone makes it out to be, but it was certainly better than it had any right to be.
What sounded like a joke—a spinoff of the Rocky series starring Apollo Creed's bastard son as he masters prizefighting under the tutelage of the Italian Stallion—was instead inventively filmed (the one-shot fight midway through the picture that everyone raves about is raved about for good reason; it's the single-most-impressively-filmed fight in the whole franchise) and passionately acted (Michael B. Jordan is currently the greatest Michael Jordan going).
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Similarly, Creed II sounds like a cash-in nostalgia play: newly crowned champion Adonis Creed (Jordan) is challenged to a fight by Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his hulking monster of a son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu). Ivan, of course, killed Adonis's father in Rocky IV before losing to Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and losing the Cold War altogether.
Creed II could have been a silly rehash of Rocky III (a champ abandoned by his trainer because he's unlikely to beat the physically imposing, impassioned challenger) and Rocky IV (the Russians: still bad all these years later!). But, like its predecessor, Creed II is much better than it has any right to be. And that’s almost entirely because of the work done by Lundgren and Munteanu, who make the Dragos not only sympathetic but kind of sad.
After Rocky's humiliation of Ivan in front of the Soviet Politburo—during which the Soviet crowd literally started chanting Rocky's name, recognizing America's greatness and the implacability of its champions in a moment that signaled America would triumph in the Cold War once and for all—Drago was cast out of Russian society. His leaders shunned him; his people spit on him; his wife left him and Viktor. This isn't a mission of revenge; it's a mission of rehabilitation. Drago wants to reclaim the family name, restore their glory, and maybe even win back his wife.
It's rare for the villains in these films to have interesting motivations. Usually they're just guys to beat, obstacles to overcome. But the Dragos are interesting, they have a life and world all their own. And that helps Creed II transcend the sequel doldrums that afflict much of the rest of the film. Steven Caple Jr. has replaced Ryan Coogler behind the lens, and his work here is competent but not much more. Visually speaking, there's nothing particularly compelling about the climactic fight, or anything else, really.
Michael B. Jordan remains charismatic and compelling, his expressive face and chiseled body dominating the screen. By film's end he too is a father, worried about the world his daughter will face and the challenges she will have to overcome—and weighing what he owes to his father, the boxing great cut down by the hulking commie. Rocky, who probably gets a bit too much screen time, gumming up the momentum of the movie, is having dad problems all his own, trying to work up the courage to reconnect with his somewhat-estranged son.
Creed II sometimes barely feels like a boxing movie, and I mean that in the best way possible: It's a film about what parents owe their children, and vice versa. The physical combat that frames these conflicts is little more than window dressing.