Credit: Barry Wetcher/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

We’re now officially eight movies deep into the Rocky Cinematic Universe. Shocking, I know. But just when you thought that every last nook and cranny of that universe had been strip-mined for narrative fodder, along comes Creed II.

Thanks to the deft directorial hand of Ryan Coogler and a blistering, brooding turn from Michael B. Jordan, 2015’s franchise reboot, Creed, exceeded the expectations of even the most ardent Rocky fan. And its out-of-nowhere success all but guaranteed another sequel. The only question was: Where to go for another shot of drama? The short answer is all the way back to 1985’s Rocky IV – that patriotically campy Cold War classic in which Sylvester Stallone’s Italian Stallion avenged the death of his love-hate rival Apollo Creed at the hands (or rather the granite fists) of Dolph Lundgren’s robotic Russki Ivan Drago.

Desperate? Perhaps. But if the Star Wars braintrust could somehow spin an entire movie out of how the plans of the Death Star were first stolen, then I suppose even the flimsiest premises are now fair game. Plus, it actually works for Creed II. While not quite as great as the first film showcasing Jordan’s Adonis, The Land director Steven J. Caple Jr. has made a rousing tale about fathers and sons, guilt and redemption, loneliness and family – just the sort of big, sledgehammer-subtle themes that have always propelled the series.

Now heavyweight champ, Jordan’s Adonis is about to become a father himself (as before Tessa Thompson brings the same sort of humanizing, soft chewy heart that Talia Shire once brought to the character of Adrian; and Phylicia Rashad has a couple of scene-stealing acts of grand larceny as Adonis’ all-knowing mother). But before Adonis can accept his new role as a dad, he needs to prove himself worthy to himself and his late father. In other words, he has to settle an old score that comes in the hulking form of Drago’s mound-of-muscles son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).

Creed II slavishly follows the sentimental-palooka Rocky template as if it were a sacred text. Still, it doesn’t make those old rope-a-dope tropes any less effective. Especially when Stallone — as Adonis’ trainer, shrink, and father-confessor — is still able to summon the same mumbly poignancy that first made him a movie star 40 years ago. That said, if there’s going to be a Creed III sometime in the near future, maybe it would be best for all involved to steer clear of resurrecting Mr. T. and his title belt-hungry son, Clubber Lang Jr. B+

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