It’s as surprising to the reviewer as it is to anyone who reads this, that “Creed II,” the sequel to the 2015 hit, is one of the single best surprises to the film year.  Newly tapped director Steven Caple Jr., focuses on the resilience and motivation of its central characters, bringing forth an avalanche of emotions that measures up to the finest “Rocky” sequel to date.  Where Caple’s direction is truly mastered is in his active command of his actors, most notably Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson. Strap in, because “Creed II” is a wild, great time at the movies.

Creed II” continues the story of Adonis Creed (Jordan), the son of the late Apollo Creed who died in the boxing ring during the events of “Rocky IV.”  Under the tutelage or Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Adonis faces off against Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Apollo 30 years prior.  Faced with this mounting challenge, in addition to the impending arrival of his first child with girlfriend Bianca (Thompson), Adonis must find his reason for fighting both in and out of the ring.

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the Rocky saga over eight movies.  Going from the masterpiece that is 1976’s “Rocky” before becoming a caricature of its former self with four, less-than-great sequels, and a 2006 forgettable old-guy match.  In 2015, people found the emotional center in the series again as Ryan Coogler helmed the beloved “Creed” and its proven to be a fruitful venture.  Sylvester Stallone, who steps into the writing chair once again with Juel Taylor, creates narrative structures that are wholly engaging.  The weight of this match is felt in every frame in which the viewer interlocks with Adonis and his surroundings.  The screenwriters examine the systemic driving force of a fighter, in relation to, the success of a man.  On one side, a man had power and privilege until failure stripped him of all his fortunes.  The other hand, motivated by guilt, seems to be carried in the form of regret, sadness, and rage.

The dual writers also create a compelling, interesting dynamic with Viktor Drago, a character we could have given more agency.  Florian Munteanu‘s subdued performance is highly expressive with facial expressions and most importantly, can pull the cartoon-ish creation of his father Ivan, into the real world.  One of the writer’s great decisions was giving the Rocky story a rightful backseat.  We are firmly in the passenger seat with Adonis’ narrative driving the story.  Hearing any argument that the “boxing story” aspect is perhaps too familiar and predictable, it’s what they are able to do around that central story that makes the film genuinely transcendent.

Michael B. Jordan, who is continuously proving his worth in the industry, turns in another outstanding performance.  What makes this one matter most, is that it is his first great turn that wasn’t under the thumb of Ryan Coogler.  After his breakout with “Fruitvale Station” and turning an Oscar-worthy role in “Black Panther” from earlier this year, it was beginning to feel as though he could only deliver when partnered with Coogler.  This proves that he has the chops to go the distance, with any director, and married with the right material.

Tessa Thompson, who has just been a force in the industry, turning in memorable roles in half a dozen pictures in her short career, delivers a career-best turn.  Her Bianca is afforded a lot of opportunities to stretch not only her anxiety regarding Adonis’ career choice but hone in on her own purpose and disability.  Her impending motherhood is not used as a crutch, rather a circumstantial device that allows Thompson to extend herself, well beyond her means.  If the Academy was willing right the name of Stallone down in 2015, there should be no issue for them giving the proper due to this electric and stirring actress.

Creed II” has heart, massive, large amounts of it.  Much props to the film editing team of Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, and Paul Harb who find a cohesive and thrilling pace and execute it to flawless applause. It’s one of the best sports films in the past few years, looming on the male psyche regarding legacy and fear.  It’s essential viewing for the awards season and one unexpected contender that should be highly considered.

“Creed II” is distributed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer and is currently in theaters.

GRADE(★★★½)

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “CREED II” ranks among the contenders!