At its best moments, “Creed II” manages a feat nearly as striking as anything that Michael B. Jordan’s Rocky Balboa protégé pulls off in the boxing ring: It doesn’t play all that much like a sequel. Rather, with its story of Adonis Creed — né “Donnie” Johnson — facing the son of “Rocky IV” villain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the movie has the feel of a main event.
As exhilaratingly relevant (and, yes, superior) as the last installment was, it now has been organically recast as a prelude. The true fight of Donnie’s life, we sense, wasn’t to prove worthy of his celebrated name, but to avenge his father’s death at Drago’s hands, with all that it tragically meant for those in Apollo’s orbit.
Director Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t deliver the dynamism of acclaimed “Creed” prime mover Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), but he does preside over some strong character interplay. There’s more of the easy chemistry between Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, plus more adoptive-family friction, as Stallone’s haunted Rocky voices understandable misgivings about being in the corner for another Creed-Drago bout.
Meanwhile, Lundgren’s scruffy, still-scary cold warrior mixes it up with his life-ruining Amerikanski opponents in intriguingly fleshed-out ways. Drago quietly seethes at Rocky in a tense restaurant confab — terrific stuff from both Stallone and Lundgren — but also flashes humanizing vulnerabilities that definitely weren’t on the franchise’s agenda back in the Reagan era. By contrast, Drago’s son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu, also billed here as “Big Nasty”), is mostly just a type, but an effective one. He’s a hulked-out Jamie Dornan lookalike who serves as he-vill-break-you intimidator — oof, those rib shots! — and catch-all bucket for Ivan’s obsession with redemption. Shame, and the struggle to get past it, is a big theme here, for antagonist and protagonist alike.
Stakes are further raised by Donnie’s deepening relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), as the couple get engaged and get pregnant — developments that somewhat genericize Thompson’s spirited funk queen. Still, there’s a tradeoff: scenes between Bianca and Donnie’s supremely supportive stepmom (Phylicia Rashad), commiserative bits that are a nice, female-centric fit for a saga with such macho history.
Other elements don’t snap into place quite so well. While a fight partway through the action offers novel rationale for a rematch, a penultimate, “Mad Max”-grungy desert-training montage fumbles to parallel the Siberian harshness of a comparable sequence in “Rocky IV.” There’s also considerable discussion about how Donnie needs to face his legacy-dredging challenger not for vengeance, but for better, more genuinely personal reasons. Strange, to this R.I.P.-Apollo sentimentalist, his motivation sounded plenty personal already.
Directed by Steven Caple Jr. Written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, from a story by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu. Boston theaters, suburbs. 130 minutes. PG-13 (sports-action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.