The Rocky franchise may create mixed emotions for many, but it remains one of the great American franchises in cinematic history. At bare minimum, Rocky through Rocky IV were very good to excellent films. The soft reboot of the franchise with Creed helped signal there were still stories to tell and lessons to learn from this universe. It introduced many to Michael B. JordanTessa Thompson, and Ryan Coogler. It was also one of the best boxing films ever. As someone once noted, “the crown is heavy,” and expectations for Creed II swelled. Now, under the stewardship of director Steven Caple Jr., the franchise officially has its best sequel with the towering achievement that is Creed II.

The new film picks up years after the original Creed films, with Adonis (Jordan) getting ready to fight for the heavyweight title. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) continues to coach him, and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is at his side. After winning the belt, Adonis asks Bianca to marry him and his life should feel complete. Yet something is missing. Meanwhile across an ocean, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) trains his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to become the challenger to Creed. When Ivan and Viktor reveal themselves to the world, the pain and tragedy of the past are pushed into the public eye. As Adonis navigates his road to the fight, he must weigh what it means to be a boxer versus his future as a father and husband.

From the get-go, Jordan hoists the weight of the franchise on his shoulders and carries the film. Any doubt that anyone has had about his star power needs to move on. He’s a bonafide star and absolutely crushes the sequel. We knew that his portrayal of Adonis Creed was nuanced and emotional, yet this film gives him moment after moment to go deeper. He continues to struggle with the legacy of his father, and it clearly weighs on every decision he makes. As he begins his own path towards fatherhood, he must cope with the things he can control, and find peace with the things he cannot.

Even more interesting is the way that he approaches his life after greatness is achieved. When you reach the pinnacle of your field and you have no clear direction or goal, what drives you? Jordan brings out moments of a man lost, one who is directionless without a clear path to follow. When the moment of joy comes, and you cannot feel anything in that moment, you question everything about your life to that point. Jordan wears these moments on his face, expressing the confusion and frustration through raw and tactile emotion. Jordan’s performance invites the audience into the moments and creates true empathy.

Once again, Thompson really shines as a performer. The Creed films giver her the opportunity to showcase really brilliant moments in subtle ways. She not only gets the ability to sing again, but we actually follow her perspective for multiple moments of the film. We see Thompson before we see Jordan. Her journey into motherhood and the fears she’s able to express are heartbreaking. She’s brilliant and captures the audience whenever she is on screen. Her heart really elevates the film to appeal to more than just the men in the audience.

Both Stallone and Lundgren give really cool performances this time around. Lundgren surprises with really intense scenes that showcase a genuine pathos to the character. The actor, mostly known for action films and becoming an unstoppable force in Rocky IV, sucks you in with menace and intrigue. He’s special in this one, something that I never expected to write. Stallone does not get the moments the first Creed film gave him, but he’s just as brilliant this time around. The pathos is palpable, and you can tell that his heart is still in the franchise. He also gets to play the voice of reason, and the years of regret are palpable.

As the narrative unfolds, Adonis’ journey feels relatable and frustrating all at the same time. You want him to listen to those around him. You want him to do good things. Yet humans are flawed, and his decisions are rightly punished. Questions about fatherhood, what we do with our lives, and the pursuit of crafting a legacy are all put on the table. As these questions are asked of both Jordan and Thompson, the characters evolve and grow. Threaded into this highly personal narrative are the franchise-defining tropes that we all love. From the blaring music to ridiculous montage, we see the world in familiar, yet different tones. Yet these touches are handled with care, and we have to thank the surprising direction from Steven Caple Jr. for that.

Caple invites collaboration on the film, and you can feel from the fight scenes to the dramatic beats. It’s also clear from the technical team, as he bounces between various types of cinematography to allow basic establishing shots, handheld tracking, and deeply personal close-ups. He paces the film well and gives many character moments the ability to breathe. The actors benefit most from his direction, allowing longer scenes time to let the actors hit their emotion organically. He also allows characters to move offscreen, capturing the reactions from the performers that are the most emotionally affected. He’s someone to watch moving forward and should find a home making studio films for years.

Creed II should be seen as a highlight of the series, easily becoming one of the best sequels in franchise history. Following Adonis has been surprisingly rewarding, and Jordan shines again and again. We should not make the mistake of ignoring his performance for this film, as he breathes life into the film in a big way. With a dynamite cast, a compelling narrative, and a very intense film, the latest in the Rocky franchise will wow you. If you love these movies, you will stand up and cheer. It reminds you what exciting dramas can still be told in the studio system.

GRADE: (★½)

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