I’m not even lying when I tell you guys that this franchise consistently remains the only instance when I even get remotely interested in boxing. Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor’s humongous publicized showdown from last year’s got absolutely nothing on these guys. This boxing-focused sports drama marks the eighth overall installment in the long-running Rocky franchise. It was jointly released in theaters by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. around the world on November 21st, 2018, and managed to score the largest Thanksgiving opening for a live-action film in history. It has thus far grossed about three times its $50 million budget at the worldwide box office and has enjoyed positive responses from critics and audiences, albeit a little less so than its predecessor. Following the huge success of Ryan Coogler’s Creed in 2015, Sylvester Stallone initially signed on to both write and direct the sequel, in addition to reprising his iconic role. However, in an unexpected move, he stepped down from the helm and gave it to Steven Caple Jr., fresh off of his acclaimed Sundance debut The Lands. The film’s production was pushed back considerably to give extra time for its star’s schedule and promotion of Black Panther. It’s also rumored to be the final film featuring Stallone as the Italian Stallion. Michael B. Jordan returns as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, illegitimate son of the deceased boxer Apollo and current World Heavyweight Champion. His reign is disrupted when he and his mentor Rocky Balboa are confronted by Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren, a disgraced Russian boxer who killed Donnie’s father in the ring 33 years prior. He comes to the United States and publicly challenges Creed’s championship title in a fight against his son Viktor, in hopes of gaining favor with his home country once more. Realizing how tough of an egg Viktor is to crack, Donnie begins rigorously training with Rocky, all while anticipating the possibility of a new life with his girlfriend. I really, really loved the first Creed movie when it was released a couple years ago. Considering that the original Rocky from 1976 remains maybe my all-time favorite sports movie, I was so impressed with what Ryan Coogler was able to accomplish. His incredibly personal, character-heavy approach to the material was both in spirit of what made the first one amazing and still make it appeal to a new generation. And although he was still involved as an executive producer, I was still skeptical of what it would be like without his touch. Plus, let’s be honest, Rocky IV does not hold up well at all, so what would be the point of revisiting this Cold War story? Especially with current U.S. tensions with Russia at the moment? I was quite surprised because, while Creed II definitely follows the well-worn path of its predecessors, it still manages to be very entertaining and engaging. One thing to keep in mind is that most sports movies, especially those centered on boxing, are fundamentally built the same way. What makes this series so successful is that it puts character drama at the forefront, while still traveling familiar beats. Creed II still does this well, and I’m really impressed with how much trust over these characters Stallone is giving to young filmmakers. Caple Jr. may lack the chops of Ryan Coogler, but he still has a clear understanding of this story of where the characters in it are placed. Better yet, all of the characters are given human flaws, making their contributions all the more believable. Michael B. Jordan continues to prove that he’s one of the best actors of his generation in the titular role. His boundless charisma and incredible physique are only matched by his touching vulnerability. By his side is Tessa Thompson returning as his headstrong girlfriend Bianca Taylor, a singer with a degrading hearing problem. While she is definitely supportive of her husband’s career, we can honestly feel her concern that he might not come out of the ring alive. And if this is truly Stallone’s last bout as the Italian Stallion, then he gives a whole lot of dramatic energy. This is a man nearly broken by a long history of pain, loss, and some superficial victories. But I was most surprised by Dolph Lundgren’s return as Ivan Drago, as well as Romanian amateur kickboxer Florian Monteau as his son Viktor. While Rocky IV was an extremely silly movie, this one grounds the same villain in a very believable and realistic environment. In fact, I really empathized with the two of them because the situation they’ve found themselves in is quite sad, fighting not only for titles but to regain favor with their country. And while Steven Caple Jr. may lack the chops of Ryan Coogler, he sure knows how to keep Creed II engaging through the technical aspects. Kramer Morgantheau’s cinematography is very steady and focused, but never quite showy. During preparations and also during the fight sequences themselves, the camera likes to rove around its subjects, capturing a lot of things in detail. Combined with the gorgeous lighting and wonderful production design, the whole picture feels extremely lived-in. The editing was a triple-job done by Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Halder, and Paul Harb. They do a pretty good job at cutting the matches together in a kinetic and exciting way, making sure that the impact of every punch is felt. And of course, what the Rocky franchise be without a little training montage thrown in? While “Eye of the Tiger” is not played at all, the segment still feels little out of place, even if it is admittedly intense. Ludwig Göransson, who’s just having one hell of a year, returns to provide the musical score for the sequel. It’s definitely an interesting soundtrack, once again fusing hip-hip beats with orchestral music for various scenes. He also utilizes vocals to great advantage, such as the aforementioned montage training sequence, mixing singing and rapping with a huge sweeping background song. There’s one rousing moment when the classic Rocky theme by Bill Conti comes up, rearranged into a brilliant symphonic sound. It’s a near-knockout that almost made me want to get up from my seat and cheer for the main hero. Creed II may be predictable and formulaic, but it continues on a powerful saga of legacy. While it doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of the first one, it’s still tough and heartfelt enough to rank among the better entries in the long-running series. Michael B. Jordan has been long overdue for his own leading franchise role, and this is a magnificent way to start that path. If only more sports films could be like this.