“Creed II” proves to be an intense boxing drama, but falls short of the original

The emotionally charged “Creed Ⅱ” thrills but doesn’t quite land the knockout punch of the 2015 original.

The film centers around Adonis Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan, the son of the legendary boxer Apollo Creed. Ivan Drago — the Russian hunk who killed Apollo in a brutal boxing match thirty years ago, played by Dolph Lundgren — has been preparing his son Viktor, played by Florian Munteanu, to face off against Adonis, the current world champion. On the sidelines is Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone. Balboa, despite his sometimes incomprehensible mumbling, became a trainer and father figure for Adonis in the original “Creed,” and remains the film’s emotional core. Bianca, Adonis’ determined, indie-singer girlfriend, played by Tessa Thompson, also returns from the first film. As Adonis continues to face the challenge of forging his own individual legacy, new conflicts arise in his personal life that, while having predictable conclusions, push Adonis to his limits.

The real entertainment in “Creed Ⅱ” lies in the performances and character development. Jordan continues to demonstrate that he’s one of the best actors working today, fully committing to a role that requires a huge amount of dramatic range. Adonis, despite his occasionally dangerous masculinity, is a sympathetic character who’s easy to root for. As viewers follow Adonis from happiness to heartbreak and from adrenaline-fueled excitement to crippling pain, Jordan’s performance always feels authentic and grounded in reality. Even though “Creed Ⅱ” follows a predictable thematic path, Adonis remains a compelling protagonist.

Stallone, much like in the original “Creed,” also gives a masterful, iconic performance I didn’t expect. While Stallone’s acting chops aren’t near the prowess of Jordan and Thompson, his gruff demeanor and inspirational, at times even deeply philosophical, comments throughout the film render him a timeless character who’s hard to leave once the end credits roll. Balboa’s a weathered soul who’s faced some of life’s greatest difficulties, but his relationship with the Creed family brings him happiness and a reaffirmation of life’s greatest joys — those centered around love and family. It’s unfortunate that, while Balboa almost took center-stage in the original “Creed,” he’s relegated to the background of “Creed Ⅱ” for a large portion of the film. As the Creed-Balboa relationship is integral to the “Creed” films’ lasting impact, one wishes he had more screen time in the sequel.

Instead, Bianca’s relationship with Adonis takes up much of “Creed Ⅱ,” for reasons I won’t spoil. “Creed Ⅱ” continues the original film’s sense of intimacy, not afraid to slow down to focus on personal dialogue exchanges between characters, especially those between Adonis and Bianca. Despite what the chest-pumping trailers might lead viewers to believe, “Creed Ⅱ” spends most of its runtime with these smaller, believable moments.

That’s not to say the boxing scenes aren’t impressively brutal, but they aren’t filmed with the same finesse as Ryan Coogler’s original, cutting too much and at times feeling oddly generic. None of the punch-outs in “Creed Ⅱ” come close to the one-take, jaw-dropping mastery of the fight scene from the original’s halfway point. Nevertheless, the visceral sound design and uncompromising violence still made me gasp periodically — surprising for a PG-13 film.

While Ryan Coogler, the filmmaker who directed the original “Creed,” didn’t return to direct “Creed Ⅱ,” relative newcomer Steven Caple Jr. does a fine enough job behind the camera. Certain shots are astoundingly good, and Caple sure knows how to make a training montage, but the film has noticeable pacing issues.

Some moments in the beginning feel rushed, while others later on feel drawn out and might cause impatient viewers to become restless. Indeed, everyone seemed to be cracking their knuckles in the theater during certain moments where the action slowed down. For myself, a fan of the original film, these slower moments were much appreciated. For viewers unfamiliar with the original, however, the emotional beats might not hit as hard as intended.

Furthermore, “Creed Ⅱ” spends time with Ivan and Viktor Drago, the main antagonists, but their scenes lack emotional heft. While I did feel some sympathy for Viktor, there was potential to develop his character further that wasn’t realized. Viktor’s forced to devote his life to boxing by his authoritative father, but the film spends too little time with them. I wanted to care about Viktor, but I never become fully invested. Even so, his attempted character development was refreshing to see.

Despite its flaws, “Creed Ⅱ” still proves an intense, heartfelt boxing drama that successfully expands upon, and would also prove a fitting end to, the “Rocky” franchise.