'Creed II' aims for the gut

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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.

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.


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