Rocky sequels, and by extension Creed sequels, are nail-biting experiences from the moment they're first announced. The shadow of Rocky V still looms infamously, so any new addition to the franchise past that point has felt like a riskier endeavor each time out. Thankfully, Creed II is a nail-biter for all the right reasons, as the film is a rousing return to the world of Adonis Creed.
Creed II sees Adonis "Donnie" Creed (Michael B. Jordan) facing down his greatest opponent: Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu,) the son of disgraced Russian boxer, and the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren.) The stakes are higher in and out of the ring, as Donnie and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) have started to build more of a life together. A life that is easily threatened if the results of this quest for glory turn deadly.
As a movie, Creed II is just as effective as its predecessor when it comes to pumping an audience up. At its worst, the Rocky sequels have felt hokey and driven by egoism; yet, Creed II takes a page out of Creed's book and not only challenges its protagonist's body, but also challenges his heart. The ante has been upped in Adonis' personal life in the new movie and it in turn makes the angle focused on his life in the ring all the more tense and terrifying.
Rather than leaning into the typical ego the next round would present, Creed II spends a good amount of its narrative asking one important question: What are you fighting for? In their own way, each character answers that question, and the cumulative responses form a story that finds a good way to dissect that question in an interesting and diverse manner. In turn, this approach also allows the entire returning cast for Creed II to use that motivation to its fullest potential.
Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson's on-screen relationship takes a natural path of progression and both actors find their rhythm together from the beginning. They never miss a step in their telling of Donnie and Bianca's courtship, and that romance proves to be a solid bedrock for Creed II to be built upon. On top of that very personal story is the relationship between Donnie and Rocky Balboa, once again played by Sylvester Stallone. While that pairing isn't as pronounced as it was in Creed, the mentor and mentee relationship is still vital to this film's chain of events; it's just not as front and center as it was in the previous film.
For everything that it gets right, Creed II's only real flaw is a bit of a dip in the pacing of the film. The way things are structured storywise, there's still a big gap of totally personal drama in between moments of action-packed sportsmanship. As such, the film slows down for an extended period of time, but it doesn't become boring by any stretch of the imagination.
Also, the story of Ivan Drago's fate since Rocky IV, and the conditions that he and Viktor are facing, feel like they could have been better explored in its own companion film. Dolph Lundgren is still imposing as ever as Ivan, and newcomer Florian Munteanu brings a ferocity to the screen as Viktor that makes for an effective opponent. It's because of their performances, and the few places that story is allowed to navigate that may leave some fans wanting more from that particular aspect of the story. While it still works as a tangent to Creed II, there's still a lot to be mined in that particular story vein, and one film's B-plot just isn't enough room to do so properly.
When you add it all up, Creed II does fall behind Creed in terms of quality, but only barely. The spirit of Ryan Coogler's direction lives in director Steven Caple Jr.'s masterful sequel, keeping the Creed family torch lit for those who might want to see other round of Adonis versus the world. In the realm of the Rocky franchise, which has been known for its uneven history with sequels, that's the equivalent of a satisfying win.
That victory comes from the one thing the Creed films, and even 2006's Rocky Balboa remembered to bring to the table: All of those films remembered to include the heart of the warrior spirit. It is because of that heart that Creed II is absolutely exhilarating, touching gloves with the audience & knocking out expectations. If you got pumped watching the first film, be prepared to have your heart beating out of your chest again; because when Creed II is at its best, it's totally inspiring.