‘CREED II’ GOES MORE THAN THE DIS­TANCE. IT’S A KO

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The weight of legacy hangs heav­ily over “Creed II.” Not just for most of the char­ac­ters, who must come to grips with their own fam­ily his­to­ries. But also for the film­mak­ers, tasked with mak­ing a se­quel to a suc­cess­ful spin-off of a beloved fran­chise. It would put any film on the ropes. Not this one.

“Creed II” pulls off a rather amaz­ing feat by adding to the lus­ter of its pre­de­ces­sor and pro­pel­ling the nar­ra­tive into a bright fu­ture while also reach­ing back to honor its past, res­ur­rect­ing un­fin­ished busi­ness from “Rocky IV” and adding a dash of “Rocky III.” Pound per pound, the se­quel might even be bet­ter than its pre­de­ces­sor.

Steven Caple Jr. re­placed Ryan Coogler in the di­rec­tor’s chair this time but there is plenty of con­ti­nu­ity: Michael B. Jor­dan re­turns as Ado­nis Creed, with Sylvester Stal­lone by his side as for­mer heavy­weight champ and trainer Rocky Bal­boa. Also back: Tessa Thomp­son as Creed’s love in­ter­est, Phyli­cia Rashad as Creed’s mom, and Wood Har­ris as a coach. Max Keller­man is ring­side again as color com­men­ta­tor.

The se­quel pits Creed against man-moun­tain Vik­tor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago, who killed Ado­nis Creed’s fa­ther, Apollo Creed, in the ring in “Rocky IV.” That stirs up trauma for Rocky, who feels re­spon­si­ble for the elder Creed’s demise. Rocky went on to avenge the death by beat­ing the elder Drago but we also now learn what that dis­grace meant for the Dra­gos. This film is about ghosts as much as it is a med­i­ta­tion on fa­ther­hood. At one point Keller­man says the show­down be­tween the sons of Creed and Drago is al­most like a Shake­spear­ian drama and — laugh if you must — it feels sort of right here.

De­sire — or lack of it — plays a key role in “Creed II” since we meet young Ado­nis as the new cham­pion, at the top. Vik­tor Drago is at the bot­tom, haul­ing ce­ment in Ukraine and burn­ing for fam­ily redemp­tion. “My son will break your boy,” Ivan Drago threat­ens Rocky, who sort of agrees. “When a fighter’s got noth­ing to lose he’s dan­ger­ous,” he warns Creed. “Lis­ten, that kid was raised in hate. You weren’t.” Dolph Lun­gren re­turns as the elder Drago and there’s even an ap­pear­ance by Brigitte Nielsen, who plays Drago’s wife in 1985 and was a real-life wife of Stal­lone. (Talk about keep­ing it in the fam­ily.)

Caple matches Coogler’s moody, gritty vi­sion of a bru­tal sport con­ducted by mostly hon­or­able men try­ing to out­wit each other. There’s plenty of gore, slo-mos of smashed heads and “Rocky” trade­marks — the glo­ri­ous mon­tages with uplift­ing mu­sic as fight­ers pre­pare for their shot in the ring. (Pre­pare to look away if you are fans of mas­sive truck tires — many get hor­ri­ble beat downs.)

Stal­lone got his mitts on the script — after hav­ing had a role pen­ning all the “Rocky” films but sit­ting out writ­ing “Creed” — and teams up with Cheo Ho­dari Coker, cre­ator of the Net­flix su­per­hero hit “Luke Cage.” On­screen, Stal­lone re­turns with his dark fe­dora and small bounc­ing ball, shuf­fling about and mum­bling, al­low­ing his sad eyes to do the bulk of his act­ing. It’s in the small mo­ments be­tween crusty Stal­lone and cocky Jor­dan where the film finds its sweet spot. “What are you fightin’ for?” the elder man asks the younger.

Jor­dan proves again that he’s a film force to be reck­oned with, ca­pa­ble of sear­ing and sav­age in­ten­sity and yet also goofy soft­ness. This time, his swag­ger is tested and he must over­come in­tense pain and an­guish. Watch­ing him get up off the can­vas again and again will make even the most un­char­i­ta­ble viewer cheer. As Ado­nis, he wants to carve his own legacy away from his fa­ther’s: “This is our chance to re­write his­tory. Our his­tory,” Creed tells Rocky.

Thomp­son and Rashad both tem­per the piles of testos­terone on­screen as women who steer and guide the young Ado­nis. Thomp­son’s char­ac­ter is bat­tling pro­gres­sive hear­ing loss and that is han­dled in­tel­li­gently by the writ­ers.

There’s even a scene when Ado­nis is punched so hard that he falls in si­lence and looks over at her, both con­nected for a mo­ment in en­velop­ing quiet.

The film­mak­ers, mean­while, are cre­at­ing their own fam­ily legacy. Both “Creed” films share the same com­poser (Lud­wig Go­rans­son) art di­rec­tor (Jesse Rosen­thal), spe­cial ef­fects co­or­di­na­tor (Pa­trick White), cos­tumer (Rita Squitiere) and lo­ca­tion man­ager (Pa­tri­cia Tag­gart.) The films even have the same bar­ber for Jor­dan (Kenny Dun­can). And Coogler didn’t go far — he’s an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer.

But while a “Creed III” is al­most guar­an­teed, there may be dan­gers ahead if the film­mak­ers choose to keep re­open­ing old wounds or plun­der­ing story lines from the past. And the creep to­ward more cin­e­matic bom­bast needs to be watched vig­i­lantly (re­mem­ber how nuts the last few “Rocky” films got?) Hav­ing said that, this spin-off fran­chise is clearly in very good hands — ones that are heav­ily wrapped, pro­tected by a glove and aim­ing for your gut.

“Creed II,” a Warner Bros. Pic­tures re­lease, is rated PG-13 for “sports ac­tion vi­o­lence, lan­guage and a scene of sen­su­al­ity.” Run­ning time: 128 min­utes. Three and a half stars out of four.

On­line: www.creedthe­movie.com

MPAA Def­i­ni­tion of PG-13: Par­ents Strongly Cau­tioned. Some ma­te­rial may be in­ap­pro­pri­ate for chil­dren un­der 13.

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