Creed II somehow manages to be completely entertaining, despite the fact that it’s the sequel to a spinoff from a franchise that itself spawned six movies over three decades. If the first Creed was a strong character study and a worthy companion to the first Rocky, then this movie draws obvious inspiration from the gaudy, bombastic heave of the sequels. Thankfully, this film doesn’t step in too many of the goofy pitfalls of those later Rocky movies. If Creed reeled you in with its raw and real narrative and genuinely suspenseful buildup, chances are this one will, too. It just doesn’t have that new car smell anymore.
Now forty years along, the Rocky formula has accrued the meticulous, mechanical craftsmanship of the Bond franchise: Our cocky Hero gets baited into a fight he can’t win, so the weathered Mentor backs out to show him the gravity of the situation. The Hero gets busted up and humiliated, prompting some gentle life advice from the Mentor. Master and apprentice make up with a manly hug. But, the icy villain draws the Hero into a dangerous, ill-advised rematch, with the stakes even higher this time. And, damn it all, the Mentor shows up just in time for a pulse-pounding, three-minute training montage. You could set your watch to all of it.
Despite its predictability, despite its forgone conclusion, this movie is still pretty frickin’ exciting. Once again, Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s biggest and best frenemy. Stallone brings all his mumbly gravitas to bear as Creed’s monosyllabic Svengali. Phylicia Rashad is a welcome return as Creed’s gently disapproving mother. The movie’s biggest gamble was injecting Ivan Drago–the hulking video game villain from Rocky IV–into the story. Broken and bitter, Drago pimps his brutish son like a sadistic pageant mom, taunting Adonis Creed and Rocky into the same deathtrap that claimed the life of Apollo Creed. But now Adonis has to balance his brittle pride with the fact that his fiancé Bianca is having a baby.
Creed II stretches the cartoonish theatricality of the Rocky sequels just as far as it can without breaking. The lead performances and quiet scenes of character development give the movie enough of a bottom to survive when it starts to get too silly. (Did we need another chanting Russian crowd? Or Ivan Drago calling back the cringeworthy dialogue from Rocky IV? We might as well have Creed pulling a sled.) Any more would’ve been less. Still, the strengths that made Creed a great film make this one a pretty good one. Hopefully this spinoff franchise doesn’t make the mistake of its predecessor and dip from the well once too often.