There are “Star Wars” families, and there are “Star Trek” families, and there are “Harry Potter” families, but growing up in my household, the premier movie franchise was “Rocky.”
The movies — and later the “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” series — were just kind of me and my dad’s thing. (A note to my father: I should have grown up to be a much tougher man, and I’m sorry about that.)
Screw lightsabers, warp drives and Quidditch. The only cinematic saga worth following for 40-plus years concerns a mush-mouthed Italian man who likes to run up tall flights of stairs. The “Rocky” series was the formative franchise for me as a young moviegoer.
I’m saying this up front to explain my unabashed affection for “Creed II,” despite its problems.
The sequel to 2015’s “Creed” (and the eighth movie in the “Rocky” franchise overall), “Creed II” is a slower, cornier and less-surprising film than its predecessor. It leans too heavily on the formula the first “Creed” so successfully subverted. Some elements feel rote; some scenes provoke unintentional laughter.
Though director Steven Caple Jr. does a fine job replicating the look and feel that Ryan Coogler established in “Creed,” Coogler’s deft touch at dialogue is certainly missed. Stallone co-wrote the script this time out, and while it’s serviceable, it’s also a noticeable downgrade.
And yet ... I couldn’t help but devour this big hunka cheese with a constant smile on my face. Because this is a “Rocky” movie, and I like “Rocky” movies.
If you like “Rocky” movies too, there’s no reason to think you wouldn’t have a great time at “Creed II.” It’s everything you want from the series: It’s winning. It’s emotional. It’s got great boxing and an exhilarating climax.
If “Creed” was an inversion of the original “Rocky,” “Creed II” is the “Rocky IV” of the “Creed” series. (By this logic, if “Creed III” follows the trajectory of “Rocky III,” Rocky Balboa must die in it.)
The sequel is set a few years after the first “Creed.” Our plucky young hero, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), has just won the belt for heavyweight champion of the world, reaching the heights of both his late father, Apollo Creed, and his mentor, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone).
Donnie’s personal life is great, too. He’s engaged to Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and they’re about to have a child.
But then the Drago family re-enters the picture. And that’s never a good thing.
After killing Donnie’s father in the ring and then suffering a humiliating defeat to Rocky in “Rocky IV,” former USSR champ Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) spent the next 33 years training his son, Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), to become an even deadlier fighter than his father.
The Dragos challenge Donnie to a fight in an effort to bring pride back to the Drago name. They get some help from a not-especially-scrupulous promoter named Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby, excellent in a small role). Marcelle creates a media circus, getting footage of Apollo Creed’s death to play on a loop on ESPN.
Donnie knows he’s being manipulated, but he can’t help but take the bait. He has to get revenge against the family that killed his dad, even as Rocky and Bianca are terrified that history might repeat itself.
Their concern is justified. Viktor is a beast, forged in the fires of child abuse and Putin’s kleptocracy. (Side note: If “Rocky IV” was about America proving its superiority in the Cold War, then “Creed II,” one could argue, is about America getting revenge against Russia for hacking the 2016 election.)
Anyway, all signs point to Viktor breaking Donnie in half. Standing next to his monstrous opponent, Donnie looks like a little boy. You worry for him.
But, of course, we don’t go to the movies to see our hero NOT fight the monster.
You can probably guess what happens next, because it’s roughly the same thing that happens in every “Rocky” movie: Pride. Fall. Comeback.
It’s a checkbox of boxing movie clichés. But it also does a lot of things right.
For one, it humanizes the Dragos, even if Ivan feels like a bit of a cartoon villain in the movie’s first half. Lundgren and Stallone are not great or versatile actors, to put it mildly. But after all these years, they know how to play these busted-up pieces of meat in their sleep. Their big scene together might be a bit dopey. But it’s undeniably thrilling for a “Rocky” fan.
The smartest decision “Creed II” makes is to double-down on Donnie and Bianca’s relationship, which was one of the strongest elements of the first “Creed.”
Jordan and Thompson are two of the most talented and charismatic rising stars of their generation, and getting to hang out with them is a treat in itself. Jordan, in particular, is having a tremendous year — first as the MVP of “Black Panther” and now in this. With a “Creed” sequel, the newly minted GQ Man of the Year proves he can carry his own franchise title well into the future.
And, of course, “Creed II” delivers where it matters most: In the training sequence montage ahead of the big fight.
It takes place in the desert, and it’s got it all.
Wanna see Creed dig a hole with a sledgehammer? Wanna see him shadow-box in front of a burning trash can? Wanna see him pull a thing with a big chain?
Wanna see the big fight? See Creed go toe-to-toe with an unstoppable opponent? While Rocky gives him pep talks? And Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” charges forward onto the soundtrack at just the right time for maximal emotional impact?
If you wanna see all that, “Creed II” has it. The film is as safe and predictable as the warmed-up leftovers of your favorite meal. And just as satisfying.