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‘Creed II’ an exceptional rematch

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The success of 2015’s “Creed” was surprising in a lot of ways. The notion of creating a torch-passing sequel to the “Rocky” franchise seemed like a reach. And yet, thanks to the talents of writer/director Ryan Coogler and great performances from Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and a shockingly nuanced turn courtesy of Sylvester Stallone, it turned out to be an outstanding film.

After that film’s success, of course we were going to get a sequel to the sequel, which brings us to “Creed II.”

It’s not the same behind-the-camera team – Coogler is gone, replaced by Steven Caple Jr., while the screenplay was co-written by Juel Taylor and Stallone from a story by Cheo Coker and Sacha Penn – but the on-screen talent remains, with Jordan, Thompson and Stallone all returning. And while this new movie doesn’t quite ascend to the same level as the first film, “Creed II” is an excellent movie in its own right, finding ways to ground its titular character in life’s realities while also presenting him with a terrifying new foe.

In the years since the events of the first film, Adonis Creed (Jordan) has climbed the ladder in the boxing world, methodically working his way to the top. Always by his side are his girlfriend Bianca (Thompson), his mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, TV’s “Empire”) and – of course – his trainer Rocky Balboa (Stallone). Finally, he gets a shot at the WBC title … and he makes the most of it, taking the belt and reaching the mountaintop.

Behind the scenes, however, there are machinations afoot. Shady fight promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby, “The Hate U Give”) has set a plan in motion – a plan that involves someone who had an indelible, inescapable impact on the lives of Creed and his family, including Rocky.

It’s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, “Black Water”), the Russian boxer who killed Apollo Creed in the ring and whose bout with Rocky almost destroyed the Italian Stallion. See, Drago’s son Viktor (Florian Munteanu in his feature debut) is a boxer as well, one who has spent his entire life training in an effort to heal his father’s fractured legacy. Abandoned by country and family, Ivan Drago seeks redemption … and he seeks it through vengeance.

When Creed and Drago step into the ring, it promises to be a brutal and bloody affair. Adonis has everything to lose – his livelihood, his health, his family – while Viktor has spent his entire life being aimed at this moment like a weapon by his father. The bone-crunching truths that Creed must confront leave him questioning his entire existence. Why does he fight? And for whom? Those answers are what will make the difference between success and failure.

“Creed II” was never going to reach the artistic level put forth by its predecessor. And that’s OK – the fact that the returns are diminished this slightly speaks highly of the sequel’s strengths. It’s remarkable to think that the first film exists because of canonical elements established in “Rocky IV,” which is one of the more ludicrous entries in the franchise. It’s even more remarkable to consider that this almost-as-good follow-up doubles down on that connection. Creed’s son versus Drago’s son? It should be silly.

But it isn’t. At all. It’s a story that finds genuine pathos in both corners. Yes, it’s the story of Adonis Creed putting his success on the line in an effort to do right by his father’s memory. But it is also the story of Viktor Drago, devoting every moment of his existence to redeem his own father’s legacy. The power of father-son relationships is explored with surprising depth, serving as a foundational piece of the film’s narrative.

As for the more active aspects of the film, well – the boxing is good. Maybe not executed with quite the stylistic flair that Coogler demonstrated, but still pretty darned good. The cacophony surrounding the boxing world gets a bit repetitive and one-note (but really, it kind of does that in the real world too).

It all works because of Jordan. He’s one of our most gifted young actors; he also happens to be as straight-up charismatic as just about anyone out there. Combine his acting chops and that magnetism and he’s the ideal fit for a role such as this one. He’s convincing in all aspects of the part, which, when you think about it, is a significant achievement. Stallone’s embrace of the meandering folksiness of the aging Rocky conveys the sense of hard-won wisdom that makes this version of the character so compelling.

Thompson doesn’t get as much to do as you’d like, but she’s arresting as always whenever she’s on screen. Ditto Rashad, who is one of those actors who is far better than she’s generally been credited. Meanwhile, Lundgren’s performance is as shocking as Stallone’s turn in “Creed” – perhaps even more so. He turns the one-and-a-half note villain Ivan Drago into a tragic figure, the abandoned warrior still yearning for redemption three decades later. Munteanu isn’t asked to do much more than glower and be physically intimidating – two tasks he handles ably.

“Creed II” is a strange beast, a movie whose success – both in terms of artistic merit and commercial viability – doesn’t make a ton of sense. But that success is real. This sequel answers the bell and then some, giving us something that, while not quite a bout for the ages, turns out to be a hell of a fight.

[4.5 out of 5]

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