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Another round for Rocky franchise

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Creed II (12A): Running time 2hr 10min: Rating: ****

WHILE everyone remembers the training montages and ringside action, the true appeal of the Rocky franchise lay in the gooey stuff around the edges – these films, for all their tawdriness, packed the rare sort of emotional punch that’s liable to have audiences cheering in their seats. Like its predecessor, Creed II has a firm handle on this legacy – it knows that a breakneck fight sequence can only prosper on the back of compelling human drama. You’ll see the ending coming from a mile off – the whole point of this sort of movie is the journey.

Rocky IV, with its grudge-match plot and East versus West shenanigans, might have lent itself to dismissal as a corny Cold War relic; instead, it holds its own as one of the more effective entries in the original series, pitting Sylvester Stallone’s boxer against Soviet superman Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). History, Mark Twain once said, does not repeat itself, but it frequently rhymes – such is the case with reboot Creed II, which sees rising star Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) go toe-to-toe with Drago’s son Viktor (Florian Munteanu). Ivan, of course, killed Adonis’ father 30 years prior. This time, it’s personal…

The first Creed was remarkable for its channelling masculine vulnerability against a backdrop of beef, brawn and testosterone-fuelled carnage – it exposed us to a kindlier, more thoughtful Rocky Balboa than would have ever been palatable to cinemagoers in the angry ’70s and yuppie ’80s. Stallone here flexes his dramatic muscles to full effect, mentoring Adonis and guiding him through the snares and snags of athletic life; it’s a formulaic premise elevated to poignancy by the Hollywood veteran’s heartfelt commitment and by the authenticity of the characters’ bond.

Though this instalment is bound to be remembered as Rocky’s swansong – 72-year-old Stallone has teased his retirement from the role – Creed II gets its priorities straight, making Adonis’ story its front and centre. Our hero is feeling the heat,
conceiving a fight with Drago as a chance to avenge his old man; the wiser Rocky urges restraint. His musician fiancée, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is grappling with demons of her own, as her artistic ambitions hit the brick wall that is the spectre of her imminent deafness; Jordan and Thompson emerge as an on-screen power couple, treating us to the tantalising spectacle of two young stars at the height of their game. Boxing films are given to neglecting the ‘film’ part in favour of endless brawls, a flaw that plagued the Rocky sequels. Creed II refuses to fall into that trap, coupling the more trailer-friendly thrills with a genuine sense of intimacy. We are granted real insight into these characters and what makes them tick, a factor that only makes the punches land harder.

In an age of renewed tensions between Russia and the West, a Creed-Drago rematch seemed inevitable; happily, this new effort is infinitely less polemical than the last bout, eschewing Episode Four’s lunkheaded commentary in maintaining its singular focus upon Adonis’ personal and athletic struggles. Creed’s fisticuffs remain uncontested in terms of their furious energy and choreographic scope; though exhilarating, the fights here feel distinctly less raw, with director Steven Caple Jr at pains to replicate the visceral success of his predecessor Ryan Coogler.

But this is really a story about family, fatherhood and fighting spirit, and it excels on that account alone.

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