Creed II isn't very good, but I cannot find it in me to feign disappointment about that. 2015's Creed was, after all, not merely a good film: it was a miraculous film. Making a sixth sequel to 1976's crowd-pleasing Best Picture winner Rocky 39 years after the original was a pretty dubious idea, and centering it around the previously unimagined illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed just sounds like-out-and-out fan fiction. And yet Creed is a phenomenal achievement: one of the greatest boxing movies of the modern age, a terrific depiction of African-American masculinity in the crisis-ridden 2010s, a generous ensemble piece that gives all of its main cast members interesting and nuanced material to play, and not least, a really terrific companion piece to the first Rocky, a film it loves and admires even as it wishes to complicate and challenge it.

The plainest and maybe the most damning thing I can say about Creed II is that it's basically the movie Creed should have been in the first place. By no means is it notably bad for a Rocky sequel, not even below-average; but given the overall quality level of the Rocky sequels, that's a pretty meager compliment indeed. Basically, it's just a blandly predictable sports movie - and what sports movie is more predictable than a boxing movie? - given some kind of disreputable interest by virtue of inserting itself into the mythology of a particularly iconic, if not particularly high-quality franchise. In particular, Creed II proves to be as much a direct sequel to Rocky IV, possibly the worst and inarguably the stupidest of all the Rocky pictures, as it is to Creed, and while that doesn't necessarily reflect well on it (now we're really in fan fiction territory), it at least gives it the appeal of morbid curiosity.

The film picks up a few years into the professional boxing career of Adonis "Donnie" Creed Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who has been trained by former champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) up to the point that he's finally fighting for the heavyweight championship. Upon winning it, he receives attention from the whole world, but the attention that matters the most comes from Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundren), former champion boxer for the Soviet Union, who killed Apollo Creed in a match way back in '85. Drago has been training his own son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to get revenge on Rocky, whose victory over him in Moscow itself led to Drago's become a pariah in his home country, both before and after the fall of the Soviet government. Humiliating and defeating Rocky's star pupil is apparently what it will take to slake Ivan's bloodlust, and Donnie himself longs for a chance to get revenge on the man who killed the father he never knew.

Also, Donnie's girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is becoming quite an important avant-garde pop star.

Donnie takes the fight against Viktor against the advice of both Rocky and his adopted mother, Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and, insofar as he is fighting for all the wrong reasons, he loses handily; only Viktor's dirty Russkie impulse to break the rules when he has no reason to saves Donnie's belt, and nothing saves his sense of pride. But he's also scared now, and only after much physical recuperation and soul-searching is he ready to face Viktor, Ivan, and The Past in a rematch.

Also, Donnie and Bianca get engaged, and she becomes pregnant.

I suppose it is true, in a narrow sense, that Creed II has a clearly-defined plot arc through all of that. But Jesus Christ, it does not feel that way in the middle of watching it. The new film gives Rocky himself a whole lot more attention than the last one (which I'm sure has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Stallone having taken over screenwriting duties alongside Juel Taylor), and that alone is enough to imbalance the new story; instead of a straight, simple narrative line involving Donnie's quest for vengeance, we end up with a whole lot of plots-in-miniature all swirling around father/child relationships:  Donnie's desire to live up to his father's legacy and surpass it; Ivan's attempt to groom Viktor as a weapon; Rocky's misery at growing older and ever more alone, having long since ruined things with his son Robert Jr.; Donnie's fear that he might be as shitty a dad as all the other shitty dads hanging around. All that, and the customary boxing plot about a man who has suffered a great loss trying to reclaim his pride and sense of self-worth. Plus, Bianca's music career, which turns out to be one strand too many for the film to keep up with, which is why it's unceremoniously dropped after being considered so important early on that a lengthy scene is inserted in the movie for absolutely no purpose other than to establish it as a plot point.

Add in the need to have two Creed/Drago fights - the first to set up the stakes for the second - and Creed II ends up being an irritatingly structureless, formless thing, with absolutely no sense whatsoever of pacing. In the hands of director Steven Caple, Jr. (who is, let us say, no Ryan Coogler, by any measure), this is all awfully flat and pedestrian: the fights are generally dull, the montages indifferent, the chronology illegible. It's a film mostly with energy, except insofar as the very invested cast puts it there: Jordan and Stallone haven't lost a step since the first Creed, arguably the career peak for both of them, and though Thompson has infinitely less to do this time (and she already didn't have a lot to do then), she commits to it. The stand-out, which shocked me, is pretty clearly Dolph Lundgren, playing a one-note villain who blossoms into a troubled, self-loathing man too aware of his own failings; one does not expect to find that Lundgren can play a tragic figure enough to bring a tear to your eye, especially when that figure is nominally identical to the godawful cartoon he played in Rocky IV, and yet here we are, and my eyes teared up. Hell, the Drago family saga seems infinitely more rich and troubling than whatever boilerplate about wounded masculinity Donnie goes through.

Anyway, I would almost say that the cast alone - even just Jordan and Lundgren - redeems the whole movie, except that it is a punishingly long 130 minutes. Still, it gives Creed II a human heart and a sense of focus that the addled screenplay, with its lack of any but the most clichéd character arcs and its profound lack of internal unity, desperately needs. If you are the sort who looks fondly on all seven of the previous Rocky/Creeds, or at least the ones that aren't Rocky V, rest assured that this is pretty much the same thing right down to the recycled musical cues that Ludwig Göransson's score keeps flirting with. And if you are, like me, someone for whom they are best left unmentioned, rest assured of the same thing. At least there's no dipshit robot in this one.