In 2015, Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” reinvigorated Sylvester Stallone’s iconic “Rocky” franchise. Now there’s a sequel, tracing its antecedents back to “Rocky IV” (1985), set during the Cold War.
That’s when Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) died during a brutal fight with Soviet-trained Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Since Rocky Balboa acceded to Apollo’s demand not to thrown in the towel “no matter what,” he’s riddled with regret. He later avenges Apollo’s death but his triumph comes at a cost.
Flash forward to present day Philadelphia. Apollo’s illegitimate son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) Johnson, is now World Heavyweight Champion. When he’s challenged by still-bitter Ivan’s son, hulking Viktor Drago (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu), Adonis wants vengeance for his father’s death.
Raised in Ukraine and trained by Ivan, formidable Viktor is keenly aware that his disgraced father lost everything: “Country, love, respect,” including his wife/Viktor’s mother, Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen), who walked out on them when Ivan was scorned by Russia’s elite.
Meanwhile, Adonis marries his musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is worried that her hearing loss will be passed on to their baby, and there are the usual boxing/training montages, superbly chronicled by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.
Working from a story by Sasha Penn (“Power”) & Cheo Hodari Coker (“Luke Cage”) that involves fathers/sons, love/defeat, forgiveness/redemption, it’s scripted by Juel Taylor & Sylvester Stallone and directed by Steven Caple Jr. (“The Land”) with some surprise punches.
Returning cast members Jordan, Stallone, Thompson and Phylicia Rashad (who plays Adonis’ devoted stepmother) deliver strong performances, as do Lundgren and Munteanu, who add surprising emotional depth to their now-empathetic characters.
Adonis Creed and Viktor Drago emerge as poignantly kindred spirits whose fates were sealed by their fathers’ match.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Apollo II” is a totally satisfying 7, packing a powerful wallop.
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
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