Who would’ve thunk it? A franchise that started out winning the 1976 Oscar for Best Picture before gradually sliding into varying levels of obscurity and/or derision, has mounted a massive comeback to the point where the most recent films arguably outshine all the rest.
The franchise, of course, is Rocky, and following up the massive success of 2015’s Creed—both among critics and at the box office—Sylvester Stallone and company are back for one last bout in Creed II. (Stallone announced his official retirement from the Rocky franchise after the movie’s Thanksgiving release.)
Michael B. Jordan reprises his role as Adonis (son of Apollo) Creed, and the film opens with him stepping into the ring to battle for the WBC Heavyweight title, three years after his defeat in the original film. Girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is right beside him, as is his trainer Rocky Balboa (Stallone). Also watching from the crowd is boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), who has one eye on Creed and one in Ukraine, where he’s keeping tabs on Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the pugilistic son of the notorious Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Yes, that Ivan Drago.
After Donnie wins the title, Marcelle jumps at the chance to once again have the names Creed and Drago together on a poster. And sure enough, Donnie takes the bait. Rocky, however, backs out; it’s clear that Donnie is taking the fight for the wrong reasons. As it turns out, the ol’ guy knows his stuff—the fight is over quickly, and an embarrassed Donnie is left to pick up the pieces.
Fortunately, he still has Bianca in his corner, along with his mom Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and it’s not long before Rocky comes back around, too, setting the stage for a wallop of a finale. (All of the above action takes place in the first half-hour or so.)
The script, which Stallone co-wrote with former sound mixer Juel Taylor, may be as formulaic as they come, but it doesn’t matter when the story is so compelling and the performances are so spot-on. Jordan carries the film on his well-chiseled back )with well-chiseled abs and biceps, too), but he never makes it about him. There’s plenty of room for Thompson and Stallone to shine.
Caple, taking over the director’s chair from Ryan Coogler, fills the shoes nicely, keeping the fresh feel of the first Creed film while also injecting plenty of nostalgia (including one heck of a cameo—you’ll know it when you see it). Though the film is arriving 43 years after the original, Creed II is very much in sync with the franchise as a whole. The gritty streets of Philadephia are still as much as a character as the humans, and whether it’s hearing present-day Drago tell Rocky, “My son will break you”, or once again seeing those famous Art Museum steps, we get a clear sense that Creed II knows where it came from.
We may not know where the franchise is headed from here, though, and if Creed II is indeed the final chapter, all involved can rest comfortably, knowing they went out with one heck of a knockout punch.