‘Creed II’ Delivers Knockout Thrills Worthy of the ‘Rocky’ Franchise

Creed II” is another worthy heir to the “Rocky” franchise that knows how to do over the top well. It continues the narrative first established in 2015’s “Creed,” but is a sequel as well to 1985’s “Rocky IV,” one of the guilty pleasures of 80s Cold War macho cinema. You may recall that was the film where boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) gets into the ring with a Soviet super fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Of course no matter what Russian juices have been pumped into the blonde menace, Rocky is able to take him down and deliver a message of peace between the U.S. and USSR. 33 years later, it’s the younger protégés of the two boxers who will face off in sequences of loud, bombastic glory, with punches that would cripple Floyd Mayweather in one of the season’s rousing good times.

As the film begins Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has yet again defended his heavyweight championship. The son of the late boxing legend Apollo Creed (played back in the day by Carl Weathers), Creed has risen to stardom with an aged Rocky (Stallone) as his trainer. He also finally wants to pop the big question to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). But in faraway Ukraine a new menace is brewing. Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of, you guessed it, the original Soviet Drago, is making a name for himself as a fighter who can demolish an opponent with a single knockout. His dad (Lundgren reprising his role) is training him for purposes of revenge. A slick promoter, Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), who seems poised to be this series’ Don King, brings Viktor to America and challenges Creed to an epic showdown. There’s much bad blood because it was Drago Sr. who killed Apollo in the ring in a savage fight all those years ago. Against Rocky’s advice, Creed can’t resist and accepts the challenge.

The “Creed” films appear to be following the pattern of the “Rocky” originals. The first “Creed,” directed by Ryan Coogler, was a tight, engaging combination of sports adrenaline and urban drama. A classic underdog tale, it paid homage to the “Rocky” legacy while telling a good standalone story of a young man grappling with his roots. “Creed II” has no time for deep set ups, it jumps right into its adrenaline-fueled plot. The first scene is a crunching visual prologue as Viktor pounds an opponent and we cut to Drago staring from a corner of the ring, virtually announcing himself to viewers. Director Steven Caple Jr., making his major box office contender debut here, keeps the fresh style of the previous film while bringing back some of the fun goofiness of “Rocky IV.” If the 1985 film was a cheesy metaphor for the Cold War, this one is more personal (the Soviet Union is gone after all), where it’s not so much about opposing nations as about family vendettas. Creed wants to avenge his father. Drago wants to avenge his reputation. Rocky fans will delight at a scene where Drago appears in Rocky’s Italian restaurant, telling him in that deep, scratchy tone typical of Lundgren that after losing the fight 33 years ago, his country shunned him and even his wife left. No wonder the guy is angry. Just like the original, the key villain says little. Viktor rarely if ever has any lines. Florian Munteanu is an actual boxer, with the nickname “Big Nasty,” with such a build that he could make Tom Hardy’s Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises” take a step back. But Viktor is meant to prowl in the background and give Creed menacing stares before actually fighting. During a press conference it is Drago who mocks Creed and Apollo’s memory. In another wonderful wink at the fans, Brigitte Nielsen, who played Drago’s icy wife in the original, returns as well. Of course she’s no longer a devoted Communist, but an oligarch fit for Putin’s inner circle (Putin alas, does not make any cameos).

The screenplay is by Stallone, who wrote and directed the other entries before “Creed,” and Juel Taylor. They manage to find enough space to include some decent drama involving Creed wanting to get married with Bianca, their desire for children and the relationship tension of him seeking to fight a Russian giant. Jordan and Tessa Thompson are such good actors they pull off the corny moments of the story well enough to almost make them endearing. Rocky himself gets some good scenes involving how he must deal with Creed wanting to settle the scores of the past. Yet his best moment is the obligatory visit to his wife Adrian’s grave, updating her on everything that’s been going on.

But audiences walking into “Creed II” won’t be there for the high drama, they want the adrenaline of a good boxing movie and it delivers. Caple takes the format of the first film and pumps it up. When Creed and Viktor get into the ring the punches make the theater sound system shake, ribs get broken, eyebrows gashed. Crossfitters will rush out of the theater to copy Creed’s training routine, designed by Rocky, which involves running next to speeding cars in the desert, lifting weights with your forehead and practicing your combos underwater. Viktor appears to have a simpler routine, but nonetheless he pounds Creed in a way where you wonder how the guy can possibly survive another 5 seconds, let alone a whole round. But it’s so well done, with crisp editing that pulls us into the experience, that “Creed II” works as a grand entertainment. The music score by Ludwig Göransson is a symphonic beast of drums, choirs and gorging trumpets that feels more suited for Ancient Rome.

If what you seek is a good “Rocky” movie then “Creed II” delivers the goods. But because Stallone remains involved and the filmmaking talent is superb, there are still strong characters to be found combined with the excitement and bombast of the boxing matches. Hopefully they can keep this up for the next round.

Creed II” opens Nov. 20 in theaters nationwide.