★★★★

Creed introduced several new characters and entire new generation to the tried-and-true Rocky universe. Just as some insist that Rocky II was at least as good, if not better, than the original, this worthy sequel continues the story of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). Director Steven Caple Jr. follows the usual tropes of a boxing movie, but does so elegantly and with purpose, incorporating both heart and tension to successfully make the 130-minute film feel like a frantic 12-round bout. Featuring a cast of familiar villains and heroes, like Rocky IV‘s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and, of course, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), it is both nostalgic and fresh.

Adonis, also known as Creed, is fresh off the heels of his almost-victory against undefeated “Pretty” Ricky Conlan in the light heavyweight championship, a fight that rocketed Creed to stardom and forced the boxing world to take him seriously. The fame soon brings formidable obstacles, as Drago’s son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), challenges him to a fight. Thirty years after Ivan Drago killed Adonis’ father, Apollo Creed, in the ring, the chance to avenge his father hangs over the match, adding a grudge element to the already-complicated business of establishing himself as one of the world’s top boxers. Billed as a “fight born from tragedy”, Creed must also consider doing what is right for his family, as Rocky, who serves as his trainer, his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) all weigh in on the fight, but in the end, they know it is Adonis’ decision to make.

Like many great films based on sport, Creed II focuses on the characters, allowing them to build up the drama before the gloves touch. Sylvester Stallone taps into his inner Rocky once again, further cementing his legacy as one of the most iconic on-screen characters of all time. Thompson’s performance as Bianca, an aspiring musician with progressive hearing loss, is particularly admirable, and continues her hot streak following Annihilation and Sorry to Bother You.

But when it comes down to it, the Rocky universe still settles its conflicts with flying fists, and every landed punch delivers a palpable blow. There is a point, somewhere in between unbelievable and unrealistic, that many boxing movies venture into, while Creed II resists the urge to be a mere slugfest and relies on an affinity for its characters.

Inevitably, boxing film clichés arise; we have the arrogant superstar, the temper tantrums, the apologies and most importantly, the montages. But it is how Caple Jr. navigates around these clichés that is impressive, making nothing in Creed II track as unnecessary. No character goes ignored; there is even meaningful character development for the villain, Viktor Drago. Can anyone list three traits about Rocky III baddie Clubber Lang that aren’t related to his appearance? By giving each character a reason to be on screen, Caple Jr. and his writers amplify every tense minute, so by the time we arrive at the final fight, everyone’s in Creed’s corner.