Part of the brilliance of Ryan Coogler's Creed, which introduced audiences to Adonis “Creed” Johnson, the gifted son of boxer Apollo Creed, was that it knew how to honor the past while striking out on its own. A month before J.J. Abrams playfully remixed the iconography of Star Wars with The Force Awakens, Coogler did something even more sophisticated and nuanced with the more rough-hewn (and often racist) politics of the Rocky movies. Creed didn't simply reboot the franchise; it reframed and tweaked its whole value system while still providing all the humor, melodrama, and boxing action fans expect.
In comparison, the recently released Creed II, which was directed by Steven Caple Jr. and co-written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, is a less ambitious film. Though Coogler is only on board as an executive producer, most of the key players are back: Michael B. Jordan again plays Adonis, now a champion in his own right; Tessa Thompson plays his musician love interest Bianca Porter; Phylicia Rashad pops up again as Creed's step-mother; and, of course, Stallone's Rocky, cured of the cancer that ravaged his body in the last movie, is still wearing fedoras and offering words of wisdom. But, in the same way Creed recalled the stark underdog urgency of the original Rocky, Creed II brings to mind the flashy bloat of the Rocky sequels.
Despite some lackluster stretches, there's one part of movie that hits you like a bolt of lightning: Dolph Lundgren's performance as Ivan Drago, the disgraced former USSR boxing champion who killed Creed's father Apollo in the ring before suffering defeat at Rocky's hands in Moscow at the conclusion of Rocky IV. Stallone and Taylor's script, which follows a brewing publicity-driven feud between Creed and Drago's son Viktor (Florian Munteanu), gives Lundgren a handful of scenes for the 61-year-old action star to sink his teeth into. Instead of chewing the scenery, he plays it all with an emotional restraint and subtle intelligence that elevates the whole movie.