Franchise. I’m beginning to loathe that word. Seems like every time I turn my head towards a movie poster, it is a sequel of some sort. Sure, many of said sequels are not bad. But to anyone that craves originality, there is no doubt that lately, Hollywood’s biggest hits have favored commercial conservatism over creative expression.

Creed 2 is the 8th movie in the Rocky franchise. One would think that the world would have had enough of a formula that is so narrow in scope. I mean how many times can you see a dude train for a fight, lose, train again and win? Turns out, way more times than would seem obvious. 2015’s Creed was a surprising hit. One that, to me at least, came out of nowhere. Apart from being a decent movie in its own right, it was an excellent way of handing over the torch of a much beloved franchise (there’s that word again). Its great story notwithstanding, Creed was also a smart way of ensuring the viability of a franchise long after its key character has aged way beyond even Hollywood’s impressive capacity to de-age its stars. Sylvester Stallone will always be Rocky in spirit but there is no getting around the fact that spirit is housed in 72 year old flesh. Rocky Balboa isn’t going to be winning anymore belts.

Creed 2 follows the story of Adonis Creed, son of former heavy weight champ Apollo Creed. Apollo was Rocky’s close friend and was killed in the ring at the hands of then USSR champ Ivan Drago (essentially the plot of Rocky 4). The twist in this particular tale? The dude vying for Adonis’ spot as champion is Viktor Drago. The son of the man that killed his dad. I’ll be honest, I was worried about this one. The whole plot seems to stink of unabashed fan service for the sake of fan service. After being burned so badly by the disaster that was “The Predator” I was understandably wary of this notion. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be unfounded. Fan service this may be, but Creed 2’s plot is one of its greatest strengths.

The movie draws regular parallels to the old Rocky films. Just like his father, Adonis is World Champion. In other words, he has no way to go but down. In contrast, his opponent has nothing to lose. Where Adonis has wealth and adoration, Vickor has poverty and shame. I was pleasantly surprised at how much time was devoted to fleshing out the antagonist’s back story here.

It is not often that a movie makes me feel bad for the bad guy. This is one area where Creed 2 contrasts harshly with the movie it otherwise resembles the most. Rocky 4 was made in 1985, when the Cold War was still pretty hot. As far as the west was concerned, Ivan Drago and by extension, the USSR was the bad guy. In 2018, the world is, if anything a sea of grey. Morality is less black and white than it has ever been (for my generation at least). As such, the idea of “Russia = Bad” is a hard sell. Which is just as well because, villain or not, Viktor is hard to hate. Is he mean? Sure. Brutal? Absolutely. But there is good reason for him to be. Caught between a shit job and a father that treats him worse than a pack mule, he has a straight forward way of dealing with his problems. He punches them away. Viktor is a man with no future other than what he can beat into shape with his fists. Boxing is the one thing he is good at. It might be the only thing he knows. This is a hard, ruthless and hungry man that has been deprived of even the slightest hint of affection or respect. And Adonis is in his way.

The solid plot is supported by some excellent performances. Every actor in Creed 2 pulls their weight. The chemistry between Micheal B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson is compelling as ever. Jordan in particular, has shown fantastic range in this film. It is apparent why he is now becoming one of the hottest names in Hollywood. Seeing Stallone and Lundgren rekindle their old on screen rivalry had me cheering. Even Florian Munteanu, someone who isn’t even a career actor, plays Viktor with aplomb. Full props to director Steven Caple Jr for getting such powerful performances from the cast.

With boxing movies in particular, there one obvious area where “acting” can only get you so far. At some point, the people on camera need to be able to actually “box”. I have been using boxing as a part of my fitness regimen since I was 8 when my dad gave me my first pair of gloves. As such, poor technique is all too obvious to me. Training montages are all well and good but the true test of any fighter, real or cinematic, is what he does inside the ring. Thankfully, both Jordan and Munteanu know how to box. Jordan has built upon the experience gathered in the first film whereas Munteanu was born into a family of fighters. Their technique is near flawless. Overall, the boxing sequences came across as very convincing, even to a nitpicker like me. Adding to the excellent choreography, is the fantastic use of audio effects. Every punch sounds perfect. There were more than a few moments where I winced at hearing a sweet combination land. I did, however, miss the “single shot” method of shooting a fight sequence that director Ryan Coogler used in the last movie.

My only complaint with Creed 2 is the music. I found it underwhelming. I’m not the best rap fan at the best of times. That said, the use of hip hop in the first Creed worked perfectly. Here though, it just felt utterly flat. The tracks featuring Tessa Thompson’s character were fine and the scenes showing each boxer’s entrance into the ring are excellent but virtually everything else was garbage to my ears. Whatever was belting out during the rest of the sequences left me annoyed more than anything. The movie deserved better.

Yes, this is a Rocky movie. As such it adheres almost religiously to its formulaic approach. There will be motivational dialog. There will be emotional turmoil. There will be training montages. The climax will be an epic boxing match with the good old Rocky theme playing in the background. And yet at the end of it all, 42(!!!) years later, it will still make you want to put on a pair of gloves and go a few rounds. Franchise or not, I call that a win.