In Creed II, the reasonably entertaining sequel to 2015’s knockout Creed, Michael B. Jordan plays a heavyweight champ who drives himself around in his own car, remains refreshingly unmobbed in the streets of Philadelphia as he makes his way to his favorite Philly-steak joint, and, in a moment of genuine despair, brings his infant daughter to the gym, where he regains his previously lost will to fight. These are the kinds of gonzo dramatic touches you want in a boxing movie, especially in the follow-up to a movie as gorgeously exuberant as Creed was.
They’re not nearly enough. But at least they’re something. Creed II, directed by Steven Caple Jr. (who has made one previous movie feature, a 2016 skateboarding drama called The Land), is bluntly diverting: You can spend a few hours watching it and feel little pain, other than the occasional sympathetic spasm during the movie’s climactic, and at least semi-thrilling, fight sequence. This time around, Jordan’s Adonis Johnson—who, as you’ll likely remember, is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s late foe-turned-friend Adonis Creed—is riding high as the heavyweight champ, and he decides to ask Tessa Thompson’s Bianca to become his wife. (She says yes.) Then he accepts the challenge of a new, formidable foe, Viktor Drago (played by heavyweight boxer Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). The elder Drago killed Adonis’ father in the ring (as seen in the 1985 Rocky IV). Now, he’s pushing his sullen, beefy kid to follow in his thuggish footsteps. Young Adonis’ trainer and surrogate dad Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) doesn’t like the idea of a Creed-Drago ticket one bit, but Adonis feels compelled to accept. He fires Rocky and retreats to Los Angeles with Bianca to get ready for the big match.
That’s hardly the nub of it. There are too many trifling ideas, and too much plot, stuffed into Creed II to make it the sleek powerhouse that its predecessor was. There’s some nostalgia value in seeing Lundgren again: Dad Drago is a stern, formidable robot—until he isn’t. He spends most of the movie barking orders at his son, as he supervises the kid’s training at home in the Ukraine. Silent and sullen, Viktor glowers resentfully as his dad—who is also, apparently, his boss at work—yells things at him like, “When you’re done, unload the cement” and “When I say faster, run faster.” Viktor dutifully unloads the cement. Ever compliant, he runs faster. Muneteanu’s Viktor does all that is asked of him, by both Drago and Caple, and wordlessly, he paints a believable picture of a mighty strong dude who not-so-secretly resents living under his father’s thumb.
Drago the elder also plays cruel mind games on his son, telling him that his mom left the two of them because Viktor just wasn’t good enough. (When Brigitte Nielsen shows up to reprise the role of Ludmilla Drago, she’s an icicle in a dress, and you’ll be super-glad she’s not your mom.) Meanwhile, Adonis has all the love and support in the world—from Bianca, who’s pursuing her music career even as she’s losing her hearing, from the woman who took him in and raised him as her own, Phylicia Rashad’s Mary Anne, and, of course, from Rocky. Watching Stallone in this role is like slipping into a pair of old running shoes, so beat-up and run-down you don’t even bother to untie the laces. He’s as charming and funny as he needs to be, and he gets you through.
Similarly, Jordan is also effortlessly likable, though unlike Stallone he is often shirtless. His sculpted masculine beauty is not lost on either Caple or cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau: They film the shiny surface of his chest with proper reverence for the glory of the human form, although their camera is not above a silent visual whisper of “Day-um” now and then. We are, all of us, only human.
The film, overall, is handsome-looking—a good thing, because no one needs an ugly boxing movie. And the final fight sequence has a brutal, stylish sheen: When Viktor, the forlorn child turned dirty fighter, pops his meaty fist into Adonis’ rib cage, you feel the crunch of these fragile but all-important bones. Creed II is a perfectly OK sequel. There’s some comfort to be found in the predictability of its beats. But only at the end does it muster any real vitality. Any ribs it breaks along the way have healed seamlessly before you’ve even left the theater.