Creed II: (****1/2) gives us time to breathe

Creed II – 2018

Director Steven Caple, Jr. 
Screenplay Sylvester Stallone, Juel Taylor
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu

After an engaging round one that saw Jordan move into the role of fighter and Stallone gracefully filling the role of trainer, Creed II gives us a development not only worthy of the series, but in better than most of the other films. 

The story starts with Adonis completing his march to the championship by beating the guy he lost his mustang to in the first film. His bark and ferociousness is unlike anything the series has seen up to this point, and it’s a fair representation of the different era the film now exhibits. This is not Rocky VIII, even it it’s he’s a big part of it. This film is all Michael B. Jordan, and he’s not wasting a moment. 

This is not to forget Adonis’ girlfriend and soon to be wife, Bianca (Thompson). They get engaged, then they find out that is not all of the changes that are heading their way. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Ivan Drago (Lundgren) trains his son in the cold, miserable weather of Ukraine. They’ve been forgotten by their country and the woman (Brigitte Neilson, in an effective cameo) that had married the older Drago before he lost. The burden of the son (Munteanu) is shared by the father, and the effect is clearly draining on them both. 

One of the strengths of this film is the time director Caple, Jr, and his writers take in letting the characters, young and old, breathe onscreen. This is precious real estate that Stallone had been known to cut down to nubs in some of the lesser Rocky films, including IV, upon which this story is founded.  The camera lingers as thoughts are processed and fears are realized. The confidence in the actors to be able to portray complexities in looks over words is something that makes us feel invested in them and their well being.

Every character has an arc in Creed II, the good, the bad and the bit players. They all are invested in a future that they don’t know yet, even if we could venture a reasonable guess at the results. 

One of the zigs that improve over previous zags is that Stallone has continued to develop his skill at showing the intricacies that make the winners over the losers. When before we would see the loser of the match coming by how much clowning they did while they were training, now we see things that are increasingly subtle.  

The difference makes a well worn path of the plot seem fresher and, frankly, more adult. 

As Creed, Jordan has completely taken on the role of series centerpiece. His skill at portraying a wide range of emotions is incredible. He is able to bring us along and never risks alienating the viewer. 

Thompson is smooth as silk, giving Creed a true partner out of the ring. She handles some of the situations that could be routine with heart and honesty they deserve.

The chemistry between Stallone and Jordan is exquisite at this point. They have a language and a demeanor that allows each to fit within the quirks of the other. Stallone’s ability to spell complex things with beautiful simplicity is only matched by Jordan’s ability to respond to them in an honest and effective way.

One of the best things about the film is the way in which we get to know Lundgren’s Drago and his son. On the one hand we see the younger, beast like Munteanu who is more than willing to administer punishment. In his shadow, a hulking, but older and pained looking father, whispering motivation to him in their native tongue. What looms even bigger, though, is the wellspring of emotions and motivation for each of them. 

I hated Rocky IV. It is easily the worst film of the series and almost a complete joke if not for the Creed / Drago fight and festivities. In the pile of that film’s memory is a decent story, though, and they mined it smartly and beautifully here. Lundgren moved from a pale imitation of Mr. T. to one of the most effective characters int the series.

The film gains steam as we move to the third act, only floundering long enough to bring back memories of some of the sillier fight moments of past films. Overall, though, I am amazed at the journey we are taken on by the Creeds as well as the Dragos.

This film is fantastic. It’s giving us a dose of an acting duo (Jordan / Thompson) of whom the world need to see more. Even more, it’s giving us more a chance to see some of the most truly gifted writers of a generation, along with the unforgettable character he keeps allowing us to see age like a reliable boxed wine. 

(****1/2 out of *****)

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