It would be forgivable to write Creed II off merely for its exclusion of writer/director Ryan Coogler, whose efforts on the last film yielded the best movie in the franchise since the original Rocky. But newcomer Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t have to best Coogler to succeed here. This is, after all, a Rocky sequel. It’s bigger, broader and a little more absurd, but at its core, it’s still driven by a big heart.

The film picks up not long after Creed’s conclusion, with Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) having racked up enough wins to earn himself a heavyweight title shot. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the film), is recovering from the cancer that dogged him in the last film. Adonis and his family unit, including girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), seem to be doing great. So of course something must disrupt their idyllic status quo. Enter Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), a beast of a fighter who publicly baits Adonis into defending his title against him.

The set-up practically writes itself, as Adonis has been destined to fight the son of the man who killed his father in the ring ever since the last film was released and fan-made movie posters suggested the plot. The inevitability of the fight is equally overt within the world of the film itself. One of the most interesting elements of the Creed films is how they make the vast and complicated history of the Rocky series before it feels like believable history. The introduction of the Dragos has all the subtlety of an anime cliffhanger, transposing Lundgren’s monstrous presence from the ‘80s with startling efficacy. It all feels a few shades cartoonier than the prestige myth making of Coogler’s film.

But what Creed II lacks in nuance, it more than makes up for in big, crowd pleasing beats, genuine emotional transparency and a truly satisfying third act. While so much of the set-up is a little over the top, making the film’s first half feel like something of a foregone conclusion, Caple Jr. never forgets that the Rocky films endure because of their raw dramatic spectacle, a dedication to portraying operatic emotionality with a pugilistic poetry. The film’s marketing and the in-film fight promotion may be all about Drago vs Creed, but the real conflict, as corny as it sounds, is within each of the film’s men themselves.

The film captures the complexities of modern masculinity, the crushing weight of legacy and the way in which societal expectations affect the shaping of male identity. In Creed, Adonis fought to prove he wasn’t a mistake, was more than just a bastard born out of wedlock. But as he begins to build his own family and has seemingly achieved his dreams, he’s still a restless, reckless figure, clawing for clarity with his own demons. It’s no surprise that the drubbing he initially receives from Lil Drago is so crushing (no one will be shocked at this act two development), but it’s heartbreaking how his adversary comes off as the physical manifestation of his own hubris.

Jordan plays Adonis with the same level of intensity and charm, the same indelible vulnerability, even if the script is more blunt. His chemistry with Stallone is still off the charts, with both men providing their own respective half of a father/son binary neither could find in their actual bloodline. But the real surprise comes in how much screen time the Dragos are given, allowing for the Russians to be less like Slavic boogeymen and more tragic figures in their own right. It’s the women in Adonis’ life, his lover, his mother and his newborn daughter, who provide him the tether he needs to overcome his own demons, a gaping hole in the life of the Dragos that becomes their undoing.

Caple Jr proves capable of letting the dramatic beats breathe, giving the action outside of the ring suitably naturalistic framing. But he absolutely comes alive in the film’s larger moments. His direction in the actual fight scenes leaves a little to be desired, as he lacks the bravura surety of Coogler’s in-ring sequences, but he absolutely nails the training montages, employing a style and energy that makes the film pop.

Only time will tell if the Creed series will last as long as the Rocky films that preceded it, but thus far, they’ve helped launch careers for two young and talented black filmmakers. It would be fascinating if that becomes the franchise’s new tradition.

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