Yes, “Creed II” is a sequel but the title may also refer to the fact that it’s actually two movies in one.
One of the smartest decisions made by director Steven Caple Jr. is following the template of TV series “Homeland,” which regularly sandwiches into a single episode a couple of cliffhangers that would be season-enders on other shows.
Less than halfway through the moving, exciting and surprisingly somber “Creed II,” we get the fight that would climax most movies: Hero Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) faces the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian boxer who killed his father, Apollo Creed, halfway through “Rocky IV.” The results of the fight are unsatisfying, setting up the movie’s real/second climax, an epic rematch in Moscow.
The new movie leans heavily on events from decades-old “Rocky” chapters that current audiences may not have seen, so it’s smart for the first half of “Creed II” to create new variations on the fathers-and-sons, know-what-you’re-fighting-for, loved-ones-who-can’t-bear-to-watch mythology that is at the heart of the entire, eight-movie “Rocky” cycle.
Jordan was fantastic in the first “Creed” and he’s even better in his richer role here, as a dedicated man trying to build a career, rewrite the history his late father wrote, stay true to his relationship (with Tessa Thompson, doing a lot with a little) and get busy producing the stars of the next generation of “Rocky/Creed” movies. Jordan, whose torso now make the guys on the cover of Men’s Health magazine look like slobs, started off this year as a charismatic bad guy (in “Black Panther”) but he makes this good-guy role equally compelling and complicated.
Speaking of bad guys, my favorite character in “Creed II” may be Ivan Drago, played again by Dolph Lundgren. He doesn’t speak a word of English but he is perversely magnetic as he repeatedly urges his son, “Break him!” (Drago’s ex-wife, played again by Brigitte Nielsen also returns, for the express purpose of being vile). I was rooting for Creed, I promise, but there’s something thrilling about Drago’s animal ruthlessness and the way Lundgren finesses it when the script finally reveals what lies behind the icy facade.
Although the title pays tribute to the film’s protagonist, “Creed II” deftly pulls together threads from all of the “Rocky” movies, underscoring that it’s time to acknowledge that Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa is one of the greatest of all Hollywood characters.
Across eight movies in four decades, Rocky has morphed from underdog to superhero to cartoon to a kind of weary nobility. With his slumped shoulders, cracked voice and Magic Marker eyebrows, he remains the ultimate survivor and, even if you haven’t seen all the previous films, you can feel the weight of history Stallone invests in the creation that has earned him three Oscar nominations so far. Every bit of that history is there in the way he underplays his final scene, which is funny, hopeful and heartbreaking all at once.
This is the first big movie for Caple but, in his work with the actors, use of music (mixing contemporary artists including Kendrick Lamar with Bill Conti’s classic score) and insistence on revealing the humanity of all the characters (Nielsen excepted), the director — like Rocky and Creed — proves that he can go the distance.
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for brutal violence and language.