The newest chapter in the story of boxer Rocky Balboa and his protege Adonis Creed, “Creed II,” raises a big question: In what universe have I landed where I can make a serious argument for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Dolph Lundgren?
The super-sized Swede’s return to his most iconic role is just one of the grace notes in a sequel that builds on the world of Sylvester Stallone’s boxing world beautifully, as it explores the bonds between parents and children in heart-tugging ways.
Michael B. Jordan returns as Adonis Creed Johnson, son of the late boxing champ Apollo Creed, who seems to be living on top of the world. At the movie’s outset, Adonis has won the WBC heavyweight crown, he’s happy with his musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he’s got the love of both his adopted mother Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) and his mentor, Rocky Balboa (played by Stallone).
Something is nagging at Adonis, as he has the feeling that he’s not really the champion. Then a glad-handing promoter (Russell Hornsby) shows up with an offer too good to pass up: A fight against a massive Russian boxer, Viktor Drago (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu). The name Drago conjures a lot of significance in this story, because Viktor’s father, Ivan Drago (Lundgren’s character) is the boxer who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in “Rocky IV.”
Rocky, who held Apollo in his arms as he died, warns Adonis against taking the fight, warning that Ivan Drago “broke things in me that ain’t never been fixed.” Mary Anne tells him sternly, “Don’t pretend this is about your father.” And before the fight, Adonis and Bianca get surprising news: Bianca is pregnant.
While this plays out, a different story emerges in Ukraine. Viktor has trained as a boxer, coached by Ivan, for one reason: To seek revenge for what Ivan lost — his fame, his support of the Soviet government, even his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen) — when Rocky defeated him back in 1985.
It’s fascinating that Stallone’s Cold War allegory has become timely again, with Viktor as a stand-in for a strong, brutish Russia. But the screenplay, by first-timer Juel Taylor and Stallone (with story credit given to Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker), gives us so much more. Director Steven Caple Jr. (who made the 2016 indie “The Land”) gives us some bruising fight sequences, but he also focuses on the mental and emotional battles out of the ring.
Stallone’s lovably tough Rocky is as solid as ever, and Jordan and Thompson make a ferocious couple. But the surprise here is Lundgren, showing Ivan as a sports dad searching through his son for the glory that eluded him, and delivering a gruff, touching performance that becomes the movie’s soulful heart.
Opens Wednesday, November 21, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality. Running time: 130 minutes.