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Review: Michael B. Jordan shines (again) in the sturdy, moving 'Creed II'

Review: Michael B. Jordan shines (again) in the sturdy, moving 'Creed II'
Sylvester Stallone stars as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed in "Creed II." (Barry Wetcher / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures)

“I don’t want you making the same mistakes I made,” Rocky Balboa says about halfway through “Creed II.” But by that point in this predictably rousing and emotionally generous movie, his warning, spoken by Sylvester Stallone with his usual weather-beaten palooka gravitas, comes rather too late. Adonis Creed — played, once again, by a sensational Michael B. Jordan — has already made a few of those same mistakes, the worst of which have cost him dearly in the ring opposite a bigger, faster, tougher opponent.

Without those mistakes, of course, there would be no movie. And if cinematic history is doomed to repeat itself, it’s comforting to remember that sameness is one of the reasons we go to a boxing picture in the first place, where even the hoariest B-movie clichés, much like a well-practiced swing or punch, can still land with devastating force and feeling. In “Creed” (2015) and “Creed II,” that narrative logic is further underscored by a deep, abiding kinship with “Rocky” and its five variably watchable sequels — an uneven, indelible legacy that the filmmakers here treat as something to be cherished, saluted, exploited and sometimes corrected.

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Directed by Steven Caple Jr. from a script written by Stallone and Juel Taylor, “Creed II” raids the standard playbooks with a canny mix of earnestness and self-awareness, right down to the Roman numerals in its title. The plot effectively merges the rise-and-fall-and-rise arc of “Rocky III” with the Cold War villainy of “Rocky IV.” Adonis’ opponent this time is the intimidatingly bulked-up Viktor Drago (Romanian boxer Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the former Soviet heavyweight who felled Apollo Creed with a fatal knockout blow decades earlier.

The specter of Adonis’ father thus hovers heavily over the proceedings, raising the grim possibility that it is not only Rocky whose mistakes Adonis might be repeating. In any event, there is plenty of father-son Sturm und Drang to go around — not just between Adonis and the late Apollo, but also between Viktor and Ivan, whose lives have never been the same since Ivan’s defeat at Rocky’s hands. The Dragos have since struggled to reclaim their place among Russia’s cultural and athletic elite, which is what drives Viktor to challenge Adonis to a fight, not long after this skilled but comparatively scrappy Philadelphian is crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed and Tessa Thompson as Bianca in "Creed II."
Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed and Tessa Thompson as Bianca in "Creed II." (Barry Wetcher / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Brothers)

Creed vs. Drago, Round 2: It is, as various on-screen sports pundits breathlessly remind us, the match-up the world has been waiting to see. But “Creed II” seems well aware that, despite the resurgence of Russian hostilities in recent headlines, the world’s enthusiasm may not be shared by the wider moviegoing audience. Crucially, we care about Adonis not because of the breadth of his fan base or the grandeur of his mythology, but because he and the other characters in his orbit have been drawn with such charm and specificity.

Those qualities can be traced back to the emotional groundwork laid by Ryan Coogler, who directed the first “Creed” and wrote its script with Aaron Covington. Coogler is credited as an executive producer on “Creed II,” and if it lacks its predecessor’s bracing sense of emotional discovery, it nonetheless understands and impressively re-creates the chief source of that movie’s delight: a group of characters who, for all their stresses and struggles, were a warm, easygoing pleasure to spend time with.

These include Adonis’ adoptive mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), no longer standing in the way of his boxing dreams but quick to voice her all-too-understandable disapproval of his latest match-up. Rocky, having coached him to victory in the previous movie, shares Mary Anne’s reservations and steps away from Adonis’ corner, literally and figuratively — a mental and emotional blow that seems to affect Adonis even more than his own obvious physical disadvantages opposite Viktor. (Stallone is in fine form here but, even more than he did in the first “Creed,” cedes the spotlight to his costar.)

Our hero falls back on the training and management expertise of Little Duke (Wood Harris), who steps up temporarily but can push him only so far. But Adonis’ biggest support is still his loving girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who, as she did in the first film, casually if not entirely subverts the role of the supportive love interest. Part of it is through sheer force of personality — Thompson and Jordan share an effortless, persuasively prickly chemistry — and part of it is the film’s at-least-passing interest in Bianca’s own rising career as a musician, even if what we see of her performing ability is mostly limited to an elaborate boxing-match intro she stages for her partner.

Adonis, of course, remains very much the star of the show, as the conventions of formula and Jordan’s own inexhaustible star wattage demand. This is the actor’s second major movie performance of the year, following his villainous turn as Erik Killmonger in the Coogler-directed “Black Panther,” and while the two roles could scarcely seem more different on the surface, they also represent two fascinating sides of the same premise: a young orphan who devotes his life to realizing a singular new vision of his late father’s dream.

How Adonis Creed goes about fulfilling that mission, one that takes him from Philly to L.A. to the Southwest desert to Moscow, cannot really be spoiled. Still, there are a few satisfyingly melodramatic developments — an unexpected new set of challenges, a briefly seen but startlingly familiar face in the cast — that deserve to be discovered on their own. As does “Creed II,” the rare sequel that doesn’t wind up feeling like the same old mistake.

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‘Creed II’

Rating: PG-13, for sports action violence, language and a scene of sensuality

Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

Playing: Opens Nov. 21 in general release

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