Like its heroic pugilist, the "Rocky" franchise keeps on scrapping its way off the canvas, proving to be stronger than ever whenever it seems like it's down for the count.
What might have been a lifeless cash-in, "Creed II" instead proves to be an unqualified triumph, proving to be yet another high point in the triumphant franchise that started with a best picture Oscar winner and may well have a puncher's chance to earn some acting nominations in this, its eighth outing, if you're still counting.
The setup is a Rocky fanboy's dream. Trailing the legacy of the gloriously cheesy and jingoist "Rocky IV" (1985), in which Sylvester Stallone single-handedly brought an end to communisim and the cold war in a flurry of well-placed haymakers, the sons of two of the movie's chief figures square off.
Reigning heavyweight champ Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) -- whose father, Apollo, was killed in the ring by Soviet psychopath Ivan Drago 33 years ago -- squares off against Drago's mountain of a son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu).
Yup, you know exactly how this one's gonna roll: A setback, conflict over whether or not Adonis should go through with the fight, a training montage and a gloriously outrageous climactic bout. But the predictability hurts this film as much as it does "A Star is Born." As in, not at all.
Like a well-honed Shakespeare repertory, it's all about the energy of the players, as well as the panache of their delivery. "Creed II" delivers with winning energy, without devolving into the gratuitous cheese of the 1980s "Rocky" outings.
Director Steven Caple Jr. proves to be a prodigy in his first major studio release, skilfully orchestrating the characters, motivational arcs and set pieces. He stays true to the "Rocky" formula but adds enough personal touches to make the film thoroughly his own.
Stallone, subdued and confident is as superb as he was in his best supporting actor-nominated turn in "Creed," and Jordan shows off the range and emotional mastery to prove he is one of the most promising up-and-comers in the business. Dwayne Johnson, watch your back.
Serving as producer and writer, Stallone ensures the Rocky DNA remains intact, and rewards longtime fans by trotting out some memorable past players in the series saga for glorious cameos.
Dolph Lundgren, who makes his first appearance as Ivan Drago since "Rocky IV" gets a deservedly meatier role than his counterparts from the old days. The 2018 Ivan Drago is still a cruel, cold force of destruction, but his villainy is shaded with more humanity than before.
"Creed II" could have settled for being a nostalgic blast to appease middle-agers who pantomimed Rocky battles in their Underoos, but the end product is far more. This is a film excellent enough to inspire a new generation of fans-in-waiting. Like the iconic Rocky statue itself, the film and its series are triumphant, immovable and gleaming in bronzed defiance.
RATING: 4 stars out of 4.