Creed II: Pulling punches

Boxing has been the easiest, most translatable sport to dramatize for the big screen because of the beauty in the brutality, two worlds colliding head on in close quarters with a definitive winner and loser.

This formula has given audiences Oscar winning dramas like “Raging Bull” and “Million Dollar Baby” and introduced audiences to a shy, down on his luck boxer from the streets of Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa, who would come to redefine what a sports movie could be.

Three years ago, writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan teamed with Sylvester Stallone to reinvigorate the “Rocky” franchise with “Creed,” a compelling drama that furthered the legacy of a fictional boxing icon and created a new one at the same time.

Jordan returns for “Creed II” as Adonis Johnson, son of the famed Balboa rival Apollo Creed, as he seeks revenge for the events of “Rocky IV,” taking on the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian fighter who killed the elder Creed in the ring.

For casual moviegoers, the film checks off all the traditional boxes audiences have come to expect from a boxing film.

Hardcore “Rocky” fans who watch the movies religiously will appreciate the attempts at emotionally connecting “Creed II” with prior installments, though the efforts are rocky at best.

Now left in the hands of young filmmaker Steven Caple, Jr.,”Creed II” lacks the heart of “Rocky,” the flag-waving patriotism of “Rocky IV” or the compelling, dynamic drama of “Creed.”

What plays on screen is a caricature of the boxing franchise, a film so loathe to have its own identity that it forgets everything that made previous installments must-see cinema.

Somehow, some way, “Creed II” made boxing feel boring.

Jordan turns in a solid, uncompromising effort as the younger Creed, though it’s unclear whether the brash outbursts his Creed displays are genuine emotion or misguided echoes of the middling screenplay from Stallone and Juel Taylor.

It’s hard to fathom, given the terrific and compelling first “Creed” film, that not even 30 minutes into the next movie, many viewers may find themselves rooting for Drago.

And yet, that is the state of affairs with “Creed II,” a film whose most interesting, nuanced work is done by Dolph Lundgren.

Still as stoic as he was four decades ago in “Rocky IV,” there’s affecting layers of pain to Lundgren’s internal work here as aging, now Soviet outcast Ivan Drago.

A mixture of pain and bitterness cuts through every line of dialogue to great effect and the cold, familial chemistry Lundgren is able to establish with Drago’s son played by newcomer Florian Munteanu is the best among any two performances in the film.

After nearly winning an Oscar three years ago for his supporting role as Rocky Balboa, Stallone’s presence barely resonates over the course of the two-hour film. The limited time Stallone is given is effective and often compelling, yet the film serves too many moving parts and distances Rocky and Adonis far too much.

In the ring, action scenes are well crafted and engaging and the inevitable training sequences iconic to the franchise are given great care.

There’s just nothing special about this installment of the “Rocky” movies, a great disappointment given how good “Creed” was.

Coogler’s decision not to return as writer/director of the second film so he could go make “Black Panther” for Marvel is telling and his absence is striking in the final product of “Creed II.”

Caple’s film lacks the passion and intensity of the 2015 original with static, uncompelling cinematography and paint-by-numbers direction as if Caple was following directions he Googled on “how to make a boxing movie.”

Popcorn entertainment on par with the mediocre middle installments of the series, “Creed II” won’t receive end of the year acclaim or award nominations like its predecessor.

But amid a wide array of family films saturating the market right now, “Creed II” is decent enough to provide an alternative for mature moviegoers wanting to get out of the house for a while.

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