Redemption in the ring

Rocky franchise resurrects old battles

Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren. Directed by Steven J. Caple Jr. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

I’ve always hated Rocky IV. I’m pretty sure my life as a movie critic started in 1985 when my heart sank to my feet as I watched it in a crowded, overly enthusiastic theater.

Walking out, my friends were all hyped that the “good American” Rocky Balboa vanquished the “evil Russian” Ivan Drago. I, on the other hand, thought the damn thing was ridiculous and hokey, especially when Rocky climbed a snowy, treacherous mountain with little more than a beard and some montage music. I wasn’t popular with my crew at the diner afterward. I don’t think I touched my pie.

Now, 33 years later, the franchise reintroduces Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his boxing son Viktor in Creed II, the follow-up to Ryan Coogler’s excellent Creed (2015).

Coogler has been replaced by Steven Caple Jr. in the director’s chair, but lead Michael B. Jordan and actor/producer Sylvester Stallone are both back, doing pretty much what they did in chapter one, which is good. Creed II might be a step backward from the astonishingly good predecessor, but it’s still a lot of fun.

This surprises me, because the film dares to expand upon the characters from the most moronic entry in the franchise. Rocky IV was a pandering display of Cold War patriotism, and Ivan and Rocky were written as cartoon characters. (That final image of Rocky wrapped in an American flag had me grinding my teeth.)

Creed II succeeds by jettisoning the U.S. vs. Russia angle and focusing on developing the characters instead.

Ivan is no longer a mere stereotype. He’s a defeated man who has lived in shame for decades after losing to Rocky. Before fighting Rocky, of course, he defeated and killed Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, so when Ivan comes looking for a fight between his young, up-and-coming boxer son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), and Apollo’s son, Adonis (Jordan), there is some extra motivation in play for the young Creed. He has a score to settle, and he wants Rocky in his corner.

Sound stupid? It is a little stupid. But Caple manages to overcome the formulaic setup by continuing the authentic vibe of the first Creed.

Jordan is very convincing as Carl Weathers’ cinematic son, and he makes for a solid boxer. The movie’s fights are as good as any in the franchise. Like his dad, Adonis gets his ribs cracked a lot in the ring, and it looks and sounds like it super hurts.

And Lundgren actually gives one of the film’s best performances. Ivan’s sense of humiliation oozes from him as he tries to regain former glory via his son as well as the love of his estranged wife (Brigitte Nielsen).

Tessa Thompson returns as Adonis’ songstress girlfriend, Bianca. Thompson is good at most everything she does, but she is saddled with my least favorite moment of the film: a hard-to-believe musical intro as Adonis enters the ring for his final fight in Russia.

Stallone continues to be awesome as Rocky (he was robbed of an Oscar for his work in Creed).

As a Rocky fan, I’m happier than heck that—despite revisiting one of the lessor parts of the mythology—they’ve come up with another fun installment in the franchise. That’s a notable accomplishment.