Our guy steps into the ring as a huge underdog. Sure, he’s got grit and heart and some talent, too, but the fighter in the other corner is bigger, stronger, faster, better, nastier.
When the human punching machine tags our guy with rib-cracking body blows and violent shots to the head, it sounds as like someone is swinging a baseball bat at a leather couch. Nobody can withstand this kind of punishment! Nobody, I tell ya!
And yet, and yet …
Creed, Creed, Creed!
Ladies and gentlemen, we just might be watching one of the most historic nights in boxing history.
If you think I’ve given away too much about “Creed II,” I can only surmise you haven’t seen “Creed,” or “Rocky,” or “Rocky II,” or “Rocky III” — and shall we keep on counting?
The decades roll by and the next generation steps up, but the “Rocky” saga continues, and I still find myself rooting for the hero to GET UP and shake it off, and find the champion within himself.
So yes, as Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed experiences triumphs and setbacks, rinse and repeat, in “Creed II,” I couldn’t help but think: I’ve seen this movie before.
The first time I saw it was at the River Oaks Theatre in Calumet City in 1976, when an enthusiastic crowd clapped and cheered and shouted encouragement at the screen as Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, a nobody from the Philadelphia club circuit, stood toe to toe with Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, a charismatic legend clearly inspired by Muhammad Ali.
What a great and gritty little movie. To this day, Bill Conti’s score immediately brings a smile to my face.
The first “Rocky” is and always will be my favorite, but the next three installments were thoroughly entertaining — and then we hit a giant pothole with “Rocky V” (1990). Ah, but thanks to “Rocky Balboa” some 16 years later, it appeared as if the franchise would end on a lovely final note.
Not so fast. Thanks to Stallone’s enduring appeal as Rocky, first-rate direction from Ryan Coogler and the movie-star-in-the-making presence of Michael B. Jordan, we went another round with “Creed” (2015), in which we met the son of the late Apollo Creed, who recruited Rocky to be his trainer.
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Now comes “Creed II,” with a premise about 40 precent hokey and 60 precent fantastically ingenious: The son of the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring against the son of Apollo Creed.
It’s just like a superhero movie where the son of the vanquished villain seeks his revenge! (Then again, what were Clubber Lang and Thunderlips and Mason “The Line” Dixon et al., if not boxing versions of superhero villains?)
Dolph Lundgren returns (and delivers fine and, I swear, nuanced work with minimal dialogue) as Ivan Drago, the Russian heavyweight who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in what was supposed to be an exhibition. (“If he dies, he dies,” growled Drago as Apollo died in Rocky’s arms.) After losing to Rocky — in his home country, no less — Drago lost everything, including his wife (Brigitte Nielsen).
Cut to three decades later. Just as Adonis Creed is enjoying his status as the newly minted heavyweight champion of the world, who should come along but one VIKTOR Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of the long-forgotten Ivan Drago, challenging Creed to face him in the ring.
Thing of it is, Viktor might be an even more intimidating force in the ring than his old man. He’s a huge brute with enough punching power to, well, kill an opponent.
Just as the Rocky-Adrian romance once provided a tender counterpart to the training montages and fight sequences, the love story between Adonis and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is sweet and touching.
Adonis exudes confidence everywhere else, but when it comes time to propose to Bianca, he’s just as endearingly awkward as Rocky was when he said to Adrian, “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind marrying me too much.” (Bianca’s response is actually a very nice callback to Adrian’s initial reaction to Rocky’s proposal.)
“Creed II” doesn’t have quite the crackle and spark of the first Creed movie, in part because we don’t have the freshness of Adonis and Rocky meeting and becoming family. There are times when Rocky shows up in his trademark hat, bouncing a rubber ball, cracking a corny joke, and it doesn’t seem all that necessary beyond reminding us hey, Rocky’s still hanging around!
The script by Stallone and Juel Taylor is solid, adhering to the time-honored “Rocky” formula of relatively intimate character scenes, training montages and of course a couple of big fights.
As for those fight scenes… entertaining enough, but not particularly original. Of course, the “Rocky” movies were never about authentic representation of the sport, but the first couple of films, in which we could hear the fighters grunting and breathing heavily, and eavesdrop on their trash talk, had a sense of urgency we don’t always feel this time around.
Still, even though we’ve seen this movie before (and more than once), there’s a strong beating heart to this franchise.
Good thing Rocky didn’t listen to his manager Mickey all those years ago when Mickey told him to “Stay down!” Turns out his story, and the stories of the “Rocky” universe, was just beginning.
MGM and Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Steven Caple Jr. and written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor. Rated PG-13 (for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality). Running time: 128 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.