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Creed II
In Theaters: 11/21/2018
By: Josh Bell
Creed II
Just workin' the old bag.

When Ryan Coogler’s Creed debuted in 2015, it had the advantage of not coming off as just another Rocky sequel or a cynical exercise in branding. It was a passion project for the director and co-writer, who originated the idea of depicting the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed as a next-generation boxing contender to be coached by Rocky Balboa. Coogler combined more naturalistic drama with the crowd-pleasing beats of a Rocky movie and an extensive knowledge of and respect for series continuity, and the result was a massive hit that also brought some much needed dramatic heft back to the franchise.

At first glance, Creed II seems like it might undo all that progress. Coogler is gone, credited only as an executive producer, and Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone, co-wrote the screenplay with Juel Taylor. And the story is an exercise in pure nostalgia, following up directly on the action of 1985’s Rocky IV, in which Apollo Creed died during a fight with brutal Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). But despite a somewhat cheesier, more blatantly rousing tone, Creed II continues Coogler’s strategy of turning hokey franchise plot points into affecting drama, and may even retroactively make the terrible Rocky IV a bit better.

Following his noble championship loss at the end of the previous movie, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has become a boxing sensation, and he quickly clinches the world championship in the opening scenes. Those opening scenes also introduce the hulking Viktor Drago (played by Romanian boxer Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago, who’s fallen on hard times since his high-profile loss to Rocky 30-plus years earlier. The Dragos publicly challenge Adonis to a fight, hoping to re-create the bout between the younger boxers’ fathers, and Adonis’ pride won’t let him turn the offer down, despite protests from Rocky, Apollo’s widow (and Adonis’ adoptive mother) Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and Adonis’ now-fiancée Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who’s pregnant with the couple’s first child.

The story’s progression is largely predictable, but Stallone, Taylor and director Steven Caple Jr. (The Land) handle it with seriousness and care, making time for character development on both sides of the monumental fight. In Rocky IV, Ivan Drago was essentially a monster, a one-dimensional killing machine who barely ever spoke. Here, the older Ivan is a broken-down man who’s been abandoned by his country, his sport and his wife, and has put all of his hopes and dreams into his son, whether Viktor likes it or not. Lundgren conveys the weight of those years in the wilderness, and while Munteanu is closer to the taciturn, monosyllabic Drago of Rocky IV, he gives Viktor a haunted quality that builds the story of the Dragos into a surprisingly affecting tragedy by the end of the movie.

Rocky, too, is dealing with regrets, in particular lamenting the lost connection with his son Robert (last seen in 2006’s Rocky Balboa). But this is Adonis’ movie, probably even more so than the last one, and Jordan once again delivers a mesmerizing performance, taking Adonis from the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat and back again, and he and Thompson have tender, relaxed chemistry. The movie sensitively portrays Bianca’s hearing impairment without overemphasizing it, even when it has potentially devastating implications for her unborn child.

There are clear moments of fan service (including multiple iterations of Ivan’s famous “I must break you” line from Rocky IV), but even the cameos that seem like obvious pandering turn out to have significant dramatic impact. Caple succeeds just as well at staging intimate interactions between Adonis and Bianca as he does at the bombastic boxing scenes, which provide the requisite moments of triumph. At 40 minutes longer than Rocky IV, Creed II drags a bit in the middle, although it only indulges in one training montage, and the character building gives the final fight more meaning. As expected, the movie puts things in place for Creed III, but its most impressive feat is that it makes the prospect of Drago seem just as promising.