For any champion, the climb to the top is difficult. Staying at the top, however, can be an even more difficult challenge. It was the case for Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the 1980s, and Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) now has to deal with this reality in Creed II. And who better to throw down the gauntlet than the son of the man who killed Adonis’ own father, Apollo, in a boxing ring?
After Adonis Creed lost to “Pretty” Ricky Conlan at the end of 2015’s Creed, he finally wins the coveted WBC World Heavyweight Championship. Life is good for Adonis and girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) even as she tries to persuade him to join her in moving out of Philadelphia and to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Ukraine, a hulking brute is making a name for himself in underground boxing. Trained by his father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), Viktor Drago (Florian Monteanu) is as big, intimidating, and dangerous as his old man. Boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) reaches out to the Dragos and brings them to the US in hopes of securing a grudge match with Adonis. Although Rocky warns Adonis not to take the fight without a good reason, the young man is enraged and dismisses his trainer with dire consequences.
Director Steven Caple Jr. takes over the franchise from Ryan Coogler as the tale of Apollo Creed’s only son continues. For fans of the Rocky series, there are elements of Rocky III and Rocky IV here, especially because of the presence of Lundgren as well as the plot of winning the title and fending off challenges amid all the success. Donnie’s insecurities with meeting Apollo’s legacy is also explored together with the very real fear that his daughter might be diagnosed with the same disease that Bianca has been living with. Jordan and Thompson maintain the excellent chemistry that they had from the first Creed movie as the young couple who are evolving and taking the next steps in their relationship. Bianca interactions with Donnie’s mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) also serve as a warning and reminder of what a boxer’s wife deals with every time he steps into a ring and risks his life fighting.
As a treat for those same Rocky fans, a couple of very surprising cameos are made, the first of which had me yelling out the person’s name in the cinema as I watched. We’ve all come to expect the best training montages in these motion pictures, and Creed II certainly doesn’t disappoint in that aspect. Just when you think that you’ve seen every kind of training montage already, these filmmakers found new ways to show both Adonis and Viktor get in the best shape.
A very real plot that stands out in Creed II, however, is the story of Ivan Drago and how Dolph Lundgren returned to the role that made him famous in the first place 33 years ago. Drago chats with Rocky at Adrian’s Restaurant and laments how the Soviet Union shunned him and his wife left him after Rocky beat him in Moscow. While Lundgren portrayed him as an unfeeling robotic fighter in the 1980s, the defeat to Balboa broke him and caused him to be shunned by the Soviet government. Forced to raise Viktor on his own, Ivan is like a stage father, poking and prodding the boy to reclaim what they lost.
While Ivan raised Viktor to be a boxing machine, Rocky himself is estranged from his son, Robert, who was last seen in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Trying to convince Adonis not to make the same mistakes he made, Rocky is also trying to be a better father to the kid that Apollo left behind. The themes of legacy, redemption, and reconciliation permeate throughout the film as this nearly four-decade-old film franchise proves that there are still stories to tell with these characters.