Creed II

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Direc­tor: Steven Caple Jr. Star­ring: Michael B. Jor­dan, Sylvester Stal­lone, Tessa Thomp­son, Dolph Lund­gren, Flo­rian Mun­teanu, Phyli­cia Rashad, Brigitte Nielsen

In “Creed II,” Michael B. Jor­dan, all hard­ened fury and wounded ten­der­ness, reprises the role of Ado­nis Creed, the ar­dent bruiser who’s got box­ing in his blood as much as his fa­ther, Apollo Creed, ever did. The movie is a se­quel to “Creed,” Ryan Coogler’s as­ton­ish­ingly vi­brant and soul­ful 2015 spinoff/re­boot. But you could also call it the eighth “Rocky” film. And maybe be­cause Coogler opted out of this one (he serves as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, but it was di­rected by the rel­a­tive new­comer Steven Caple Jr.), and the script was co-writ­ten by Sylvester Stal­lone (with Juel Tay­lor), “Creed II,” far more than the first film, feels like it’s draw­ing heav­ily on a 40-year- old fran­chise.

Taken on its own terms, the movie is a rous­ing and ef­fec­tive se­quel, with a cou­ple of sur­prise punches and, mostly, a lot of smooth feints and jabs you’ve seen be­fore. But if you com­pare it to, say, the sec­ond and third “Rocky” se­quels, with their larger-than-life vil­lains (Club­ber Lang, Ivan Drago), what’s no­tice­able about “Creed II” is that it never quite comes up with a new char­ac­ter or sit­u­a­tion that at­tains an iconic sta­tus all its own.

The movie opens with Jor­dan’s Creed pound­ing his way to­ward the knock­out punch that lands him the ti­tle of world heavyweight cham­pion. Groov­ing on his new king- of-the-world image, he then works up the courage to pop the ques­tion to the spunky and sup­port­ive Bianca (Tessa Thomp­son), whose ca­reer as a pop star is on the rise. (As it turns out, he’s in for a big­ger jolt than the fact that she says yes.) And though Creed has de­feated all com­ers, this proves to be child’s play com­pared with the neme­sis that now rears its head.

That would be Vik­tor Drago — yes, the son of Ivan Drago. Dolph Lund­gren, look­ing more creased and less tow­er­ing than be­fore, his block­ish hair gray­ing but in­tact, is back as Ivan, who lost ev­ery­thing (his coun­try, his honor, Brigitte Nielsen) af­ter his de­feat by Rocky. He’s got a lot to avenge, and plans to do it all through his son, who has grown up as a scowl­ing- eyed scavenger in Ukraine.

Flo­rian Mun­teanu, the Ro­ma­nian-born boxer, ac­tor and fit­ness star who plays Vik­tor, has a soft, round face set off by a shaved head and a fuzzy black round beard, and his eyes are tiny burn­ing coals of hate. Vik­tor’s life has been a raw deal, and he too wants re­venge. Plus, the Dra­gos know that Creed’s mo­ti­va­tion to fight will prove to be his chief vul­ner­a­bil­ity: Thirty years be­fore (in “Rocky IV”), Ivan didn’t just de­feat Creed’s fa­ther, Apollo — he hit him so hard that he killed him in the ring. The prospect of a score-set­tling bout be­tween their two sons sounds like a match made in ca­ble-sports heaven: pay­back ver­sus pay­back.

Jor­dan, a fan­tas­tic ac­tor, plays all of this with a cut­throat cool laced with ex­is­ten­tial anxiety. When Creed says “I’m dan­ger­ous,” he means it, but Jor­dan de­liv­ers that line with a street- cred hubris that’s his way of show­ing us Creed’s need to prove him­self. Vik­tor, his an­tag­o­nist, is built like a wall of mus­cle and punches like a lethal ma­chine. He’s a for­mi­da­ble foe, though when he shows up in the ring op­po­site Creed, it’s hard to shake the feel­ing that he lacks that spe­cial an­ni­hi­lat­ing X fac­tor that made his fa­ther a char­ac­ter you can still draw upon 33 years af­ter the movie in which he first ap­peared. “Rocky IV,” of course, tapped into the still-thriv­ing ten­sions of the Cold War, but in “Creed II” all the legacy-and- destiny stuff feeds, at times al­most par­a­sit­i­cally, on the ear­lier film’s glory.

Three years ago, the first “Creed” was about re- es­tab­lish­ing how deep our con­nec­tion to Stal­lone’s Rocky re­ally was, and it was about Jor­dan light­ing a fire of des­per­ate bravado in Ado­nis Creed that burned the way Stal­lone’s did back in the ’70s and early ’80s. It was about the catharsis of cre­at­ing an African-amer­i­can Rocky.

“Creed II” car­ries you along, but it’s less ex­hil­a­rat­ing and more pro­gram­matic. Stal­lone, in his black-leather jacket, gray T-shirt and rum­pled porkpie hat, reprises his art­fully un­der­stated Rocky-as-se­nior- cit­i­zen per­for­mance from “Creed” — the grum­ble per­fectly tuned, the older-and-wiser twin­kle more pow­er­ful than his words. Rocky warns Creed not to take the Drago fight, and re­fuses to train him for it, and the fact that the bout takes place just half­way through the movie is enough to let you know that it’s prob­a­bly go­ing to re­sult in some­thing other than Creed’s glo­ri­ous vic­tory.

“Creed II” is re­ally a movie about faith. It’s about how Ado­nis Creed loses his, wal­lows in the wilder­ness, then fights to get it back. In­stead of train­ing in a meat locker, he now gets taken by Rocky out to the desert to a place that looks like the Mad Max Gym. He’s got to go to hell and back to tri­umph. “Creed II” has been made with heart and skill, and Jor­dan in­vests each mo­ment with such fierce con­vic­tion that he makes it all seem like it mat­ters. Even if it all mat­tered a notable notch more in “Creed.”

CRED­ITS: An MGM, Warner Bros. re­lease of an MGM Stu­dios, Warner Bros. pro­duc­tion, in as­so­ci­a­tion with New Line Cin­ema. Pro­duc­ers: Sylvester Stal­lone, Kevin King Tem­ple­ton, Charles Win­kler, William Chartoff, David Win­kler, Ir­win Win­kler, Udi Ne­divi. Ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers: Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jor­dan, Guy Rei­del. Direc­tor: Steven Caple Jr. Screen­play: Sylvester Stal­lone, Juel Tay­lor. Cam­era (color, wide- screen): Kramer Mor­gen­thau. Ed­i­tors: Dana E. Glauber­man, Saira Haider, Paul Harb. Mu­sic: Lud­wig Görans­son. Re­viewed at AMC Lin­coln Square, New York, Nov. 15, 2018. MPAA Rat­ing: PG-13. Run­ning time: 130 MIN. Cast: Michael B. Jor­dan, Sylvester Stal­lone, Tessa Thomp­son, Dolph Lund­gren, Flo­rian Mun­teanu, Phyli­cia Rashad, Brigitte Nielsen, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, An­dre Ward, Milo Ven­timiglia

Ready to Rum­ble Sylvester Stal­lone and Michael B. Jor­dan reprise their roles in the se­quel.

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