The arrival of Creed back in 2015 promised to inject new life into a franchise whose legs had turned to jelly and was barely hanging onto the ropes after Rocky Balboa (otherwise known as Rocky VI). It was helmed by a fresh and exciting director in Ryan Coogler, and led by Michael B. Jordan, a certified star in the making. But even though it shadowboxed with the traditional Rocky narrative, it was a largely underwhelming seventh film, failing to flesh out Adonis Creed and with Sylvester Stallone still the best thing in it.
Of course, given its success there had to be a sequel, and three years on there is a change of director (Coogler has been tied up with Black Panther commitments) and, most notably, Stallone is back on screenplay duties. It’s perhaps for that reason Creed II is such an unexpectedly emotional greatest hits throwback to the very best of the Rocky films, and it's done with such confidence that it’s impossible not to get swept up along with it.
Not only is it a retreading of old and familiar ground delivering all the best bits of Rocky, but it literally exhumes the ghosts of where the franchise started to go wrong. Rocky IV pitched grass roots America against a doped-up Soviet monster who cared nothing about killing Apollo Creed in the ring (hardly the most subtle of metaphors). 33 years on and not only is Dolph Lundgren brought back on the scene (and actually very good), but Brigitte Nielsen also makes an appearance. It seems the only thing that's missing is Sico, Rocky’s sentient robot butler.
But Ivan Drago (Lundgren) isn’t back to reminisce about the good old days. After losing to Rocky, Ludmilla (Nielsen) walked out the door and he also lost his boxing career and the respect of his country. Ever since he’s been training his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to become a beast in the ring. He’s as terrifyingly awesome as his father and knocks seven shades of hell out of any boxer mental enough to lace up and raise their fists. The bad news for Adonis is that Ivan has him laser focussed on avenging his defeat in the most brutal way possible.
Despite there being two boxers to focus on rather than one, Creed II feels more like a drama than a fighting film, somewhat reminiscent of the original Rocky in that respect. That is why it works so well despite the blatant emotional manipulation and sign-posted plot developments. Like Coogler, Steven Caple Jr. had only directed a small indie before landing this gig and he maintains some of that small scale approach in the family-led moments. It’s a story about father and sons, with Adonis still fighting to get out of his father's shadow, Viktor doing his father’s bidding, Tony "Little Duke" Evers (Wood Harris) training Adonis as his father did Apollo, and Rocky trying to find a way back into his estranged son’s life.
Before the Drago’s throw down their challenge by way of scheming promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), life is pretty sweet for Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). He wins the Heavyweight title by knocking out Danny Wheeler (real-life retired boxing champ Andre Ward) and is preparing to father a child with wife-to-be Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Being asked to fight Viktor is a bout he can’t refuse given his history, but Rocky wants nothing to do with it. “He broke things in me that ain't never been fixed,” he says when talking about Ivan. But when the fight doesn’t go as planned and there’s a chance of a re-match, will Rocky step up and be there for Adonis?
In many ways it’s a pointless question. From the moment Rocky refuses to train Adonis, the arc of the film is mapped out with bright neon signs. Usually that would be a problem. But thanks to a cast who never oversell their lines, another fantastic performance from Stallone in a role he was born to play, a more mature and rounded presence in Jordan, and entertaining fight scenes that will have you bobbing and weaving with every punch, Creed II delivers everything it should while brazenly showing its hand every step of the way.
Most surprisingly, Ivan and his son Viktor aren’t treated as evil incarnate. There is some sympathy shown for Ivan’s situation and how he was used as a symbol of power by his country back in '85, yet, he is doing the same to his own son. Their relationship is ripe for a spin-off as it would be fascinating to find out more about Ivan's decline and how Viktor really feels about having to channel his father's bitterness. Lundgren impresses in the few speaking scenes he is given, although Munteanu is restricted to just knocking people on their back. Which, to be fair, is a job he's pretty damn good at.
Elsewhere in the cast, Tessa Thompson isn’t given much to do again but whenever onscreen she adds a warmth and authenticity to the story. There could (and hopefully will be) a shoot-off focussed purely on Rocky and his personal life. The uncertain movement and slurred speech is filled with so much character by Stallone that he’s mesmeric to watch in this role, and you wonder what either Creed film would be without him. But thankfully he'll be around for some time yet, as will the Rocky franchise, and if they can keep making them this much fun and with such heart, then it looks set to beat the ten count.
Creed II is released in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 30th November.