Taken on its own terms, the movie is a rousing and effective sequel, with a couple of surprise punches and, mostly, a lot of smooth feints and jabs you’ve seen before. But if you compare it to, say, the second and third “Rocky” sequels, with their larger-than-life villains (Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago), what’s noticeable about “Creed II” is that it never quite comes up with a new character or situation that attains an iconic status all its own.
The movie opens with Jordan’s Creed pounding his way toward the knockout punch that lands him the title of world heavyweight champion. Grooving on his new king-of-the-world image, he then works up the courage to pop the question to the spunky and supportive Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose career as a pop star is on the rise. (As it turns out, he’s in for a bigger jolt than the fact that she says yes.) And though Creed has defeated all comers, this proves to be child’s play compared to the nemesis who now rears his head.
That would be Viktor Drago — yes, the son of Ivan Drago. Dolph Lundgren, looking more creased and less towering than before, his blockish hair graying but intact, is back as Ivan, who lost everything (his country, his honor, Brigitte Nielsen) after his defeat by Rocky. He’s got a lot to avenge, and plans to do it all through his son, who has grown up as a scowling-eyed scavenger in Ukraine. Florian Munteanu, the Romanian-born boxer, actor, and fitness star who plays Viktor, has a soft round face set off by a shaved head and a fuzzy black round beard, and his eyes are tiny burning coals of hate. Viktor’s life has been a raw deal, and he too wants revenge. Plus, the Dragos know that Creed’s motivation to fight will prove to be his chief vulnerability: Thirty years before (in “Rocky IV”), Ivan didn’t just defeat Creed’s father, Apollo — he hit him so hard that he killed him in the ring. The prospect of a score-settling bout between their two sons sounds like a match made in cable-sports heaven: payback vs. payback.
Jordan, a fantastic actor, plays all of this with a cutthroat cool laced with existential anxiety. When Creed says “I’m dangerous,” he means it, but Jordan delivers that line with a street-cred hubris that’s his way of showing us Creed’s need to prove himself. Viktor, his boxing antagonist, is built like a wall of muscle and punches like a lethal machine. He’s a formidable foe, though when he shows up in the ring opposite Creed, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he lacks that special annihilating X Factor that made his father a character you can still draw upon 33 years after the movie in which he first appeared. “Rocky IV,” of course, tapped into the still-thriving tensions of the Cold War, but in “Creed II” all the legacy-and-destiny stuff feeds, at times almost parasitically, on the earlier film’s glory.
Three years ago, the first “Creed” was about re-establishing how deep our connection to Stallone’s Rocky really was, and it was about Jordan lighting a fire of desperate bravado in Adonis Creed that burned the way Stallone’s did back in the ’70s and early ’80s. It was about the catharsis of creating an African-American Rocky. “Creed II” carries you along, but it’s less exhilarating and more programmatic. Stallone, in his black-leather jacket, gray T-shirt, and rumpled pork-pie hat, reprises his artfully understated Rocky-as-senior-citizen performance from “Creed” — the grumble perfectly tuned, the older-and-wiser twinkle more powerful than his words. Rocky warns Creed not to take the Drago fight, and refuses to train him for it, and the fact that the bout takes place just halfway through the movie is enough to let you know that it’s probably going to result in something other than Creed’s glorious victory.
“Creed II” is really a movie about faith. It’s about how Adonis Creed loses his, wallows in the wilderness, then fights to get it back. Instead of training in a meat locker, he now gets taken by Rocky out to the desert to a place that looks like the Mad Max Gym. He’s got to go to hell and back to triumph. “Creed II” has been made with heart and skill, and Jordan invests each moment with such fierce conviction that he makes it all seem like it matters. Even if it all mattered a notable notch more in “Creed.”